Memorial of Saint Mary Magdalene

July 22nd 2014

Rogier van der Weyden (Tournai 1400 - Brussels, 1464),
Mary Magdalene  1450-52, oil on panel, 41 x 34 cm, Paris, Musée du Louvre


Talking about Mary Magdalene in the Gospels we know what they have told us. On her unique figure then, stories and legends have blossomed. She is one of the most venerated saints from the earliest centuries. But we should look closely at the painting that represents her and which we have chosen.

The most striking thing is the way in which the artist has represented Mary. She is thoughtful, composed in her pretty dress, with exquisite embroidery on the sleeve, long hair and her head that looks decorated by her elegant headdress. The fact that it is Mary Magdalene and not a painting of a noble lady, a contemporary of the painter, we can confirm from the usual attributes: she has her right hand on the jar that contains the ointment she had perfumed the feet of Jesus with, in the house of Lazarus, "then Mary brought in  a pound of very costly ointment,  pure nard, and with it anointed the feet of Jesus, wiping them  with her hair; the  house was filled with the scent of the ointment" (John 12: 3).

The representation, however, does not refer to that Evangelical event. The magnificent landscape described in detail seems actually to remind us of the garden in which was placed the body of Jesus. Mary, on the other hand, was present on Calvary and will be among the women who, very early in the morning after the Sabbath, will go to the grave (Mt 27, 56 and 28, 1).

I like to think that the painter has represented the Magdalene, who, after having found  the bottle she had placed somewhere, remembers the words  Jesus had said that day in Bethany addressing Judah worried about the cost of the ointment: "Leave her alone; let her keep it for the day of my burial "(Jn 12: 7). That is why Mary is absorbed, melancholy, with a look that lets us imagine a deep pain.

She has not gone to the tomb yet, has not yet seen the angel, has not yet met the gardener whom she discovers then to be the Master. Very soon, with some companions and the jar in her hand, Mary will cross the garden, will come to the open grave. And from that moment, her life - but not only hers, also that of the apostles and of the entire world - will change, nothing will ever be as before!