Mary Magdalene is explicitly named for the first time in Lk 8:2 as one of the pious women who followed Jesus. The Saviour had cast out seven demons from her (ibidem; Mk 16:9). She was present at Calvary (Mt 27:56-61; Mk 15;40-47; Jn 19:25) and witnessed the burial of Jesus (Mt 27:61; Mk 15:47). On the morning of the resurrection she went to the sepulchre and was favoured by an apparition of Jesus (Mt. 28:1-9; Mc. 16:1-9; Lk 24:10; Jn 20:11-18).
The Latin liturgy (22 July) identifies Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Marta and Lazarus, as well as the anonymous sinner to whom reference is made in Lk 7:36:50. The Greek liturgy, on the other hand, celebrates separately the feast days of Mary of Bethany (18 March), that of the sinner (31 March) and that of Mary Magdalene (22 July). This is the famous question of the ‘three Marys’ which some say cannot be solved but to which others have a different approach.
The best way by which to attempt a solution to this intricate question seems to be an exegetic approach. The Gospels never explicitly identify these three women but a shared feature of them is love for Jesus. We can say that this love has three different characteristics: a penitent love in the anonymous sinner in Luke; a love of gratitude in Mary Magdalene; and a love of ecstatic contemplation in Mary of Bethany.
The Fathers of the Church defined her as the ‘apostle of the apostles’ and as the ‘envoy of the envoys’. St. Gregory the Great called her ‘she who burns with yearning’ for the Lord. These are images that are taken from the Gospels and which highlight her importance at the side of the Lord. It is no accident that she is referred to as ‘the second woman of the Gospel’ after the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Today’s liturgical celebration highlights the woman who received the first announcement of the Resurrection and who bore witness to it to Peter and the apostles (see photograph): this is an episode that is central in the experience of the life of this saint which is remembered in the history of art with the phrase Noli me tangere (= do not touch me) and which is to be found in a number of places (Rome, Munich, Milan, Ravenna…), albeit in different forms (sarcophagi, reliefs, sculptures in wood…).
In Provence, in St. Maxim, there is a large cave called S. Maria de Balma or Ste Marie-de-la-Baume. In this place, in the middle of the eleventh century, a cult began, the idea being that Mary Magdalene and Bishop Maximilian had come from Palestine to Provence.
Giotto and his school carried out two important series of frescos depicting the story of Mary Magdalene in the chapel of the saint in Assisi and in the Bargello in Florence. The series of frescoes in Assisi has scenes from the life of the saint and worthy of note from an iconographical point of view is that in which she places her hand on Bishop Pontano, the founder of the chapel. But a large number of examples are also to be found in Germany. Thus we have the very important altar of Tiefenbronn in Baden which has at its centre a modelled group. In 1431 its tented roofs and windows were decorated by Luca Moser, with the supper in the house of the Pharisee, the journey of Mary Magdalene and Lazarus in a ship, the rest after the arrival in Marseilles and the communion. In other scenes depicting the crucifixion of Christ, Mary Magdalene is at the side of the cross, praying with her hands raised.
In pictures of the devotion of the saint that go back to the fifteenth century, she was initially depicted as the bearer of a vase of anointing oil. There are also a large number of pictures of this saint in Nordic countries, as well as sculptures in wood, which nearly always depict her with a mantle and a jar of ointment in her hand.
As well as these scenes there is also the scene of the supper in the house of the Pharisee, the scene of the Assumption of the saint, which is to be found in a sixteenth-century portal of the Certosa in Pavia, and engravings by Durer, by L. Cranach…
With the sixteenth century and the age of the Baroque, the preferred way of depicting the saint was as a penitent in a desert or a cave. On other occasions she appears in a state of ecstasy or when receiving holy communion.
Our Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Campo Marzio, in Rome, brings together in a happy synthesis these elements through various frescoes by Cerruti which decorate the nave (Stories of Mary Magdalene), as well as the description of the little feast in the house of the Pharisee, Jesus’ preaching received by Mary Magdalene. By Rocca there is an oil painting which portrays the saint engaged in adoration of the cross.
Two other masterpieces are the bas-reliefs (‘The Empty Tomb’, ‘The Meeting with the Risen Christ’), and the wooden statue of the fifteenth century (anonymous, ‘Mary Magdalene Goes to the Tomb with a Jar of Ointment’).