El Greco - VM - Cisca Ireland-Verwoerd
The Penitent Magdalene by El Greco
by Cisca Ireland-Verwoerd
Mary Magdalene has been a beloved subject in religious art through the ages. She is mentioned in the New Testament in all four Gospels. However, the Mary Magdalene we know from art is a compilation of three separate women: Mary, the sister of Lazarus who anointed the feet of Jesus; Mary Magdalene, a penitent sinner “from whom seven demons had gone out”; and a nameless sinner who anointed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair. Mary Magdalene is also identified as one of the women who stayed at the foot of the Cross and went to the tomb after Jesus’ burial, and as the first one of the disciples to see Jesus alive. Mary Magdalene’s importance for the subject matter of penitence is the fact that she was the first woman recorded in the Gospels to be forgiven of her sins by Jesus.
Pope Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) identified the three women to be one and the same person. This has led to a sometimes contradictory iconography: Mary Magdalene may be elegantly dressed, partly dressed, nude or covered only with her long hair, depending on whether the artist wished to emphasize her immoral lifestyle before her conversion or her penitent life afterward.
The iconography of Mary Magdalene in this painting strikes a balance between the extremes of elegantly dressed sister of Lazarus and nude or scarcely clad prostitute. Her clothing covers her adequately, while not being extravagant. The dark color of the overcoat indicates penitence and mourning. The ointment jar refers to the ointment Mary Magdalene used to perfume Jesus’ feet and later, Jesus’ body. The skull reminds the viewer that life is short, calling the faithful to repentance. The evergreen ivy clinging to the rock is a symbol of immortality, fidelity and resurrection.
The Penitent Magdalene is painted by Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco (1541-1614). He was born in Crete (hence the nickname The Greek), where he was trained in the late Byzantine style of icon painting. Around 1567 El Greco moved to Venice. He learned about color, perspective and working with oils from the Venetian artists, among others Titian and Tintoretto. From 1570-1577 he lived Rome, where he was influenced by Michelangelo’s work before he finally settled in Toledo, Spain. At that time an intense religious revival was underway in Spain. Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were prominent spiritual figures. El Greco often painted religious subjects (there are seven known versions of Mary Magdalene alone), but he was also interested in current affairs and scientific developments. All the factors mentioned in this paragraph are reflected in his paintings.
Mary Magdalene raises her tearful eyes to heaven, pleading for mercy. At first glance her face seems twisted, her arms and neck too long, her posture contorted. These features have been attributed to a way of painting that was popular during that period, often called Mannerism, when artists reacted against the perfection of the High Renaissance with unsettling imagery in unusual juxtapositions. Others look to El Greco’s background in Byzantine art, with its elongated, two-dimensional figures and mystical light source from within the figures, to explain the strange portrayal of Mary Magdalene. There are also those who point to El Greco’s scientific curiosity about optical effects of mirrors and lenses, which could explain the distortion of his subject matter.
Whatever the motivation and history of El Greco’s painting style, the result in The Penitent Magdalene is a highly spiritual and emotional portrait. Mary Magdalene’s penance is almost tangible through her posture and expression. The skull, the dark robe and the ominous clouds remind us of the judgment we are facing if we do not repent. At the same time Mary Magdalene’s folded hands and upward looking eyes direct our own gaze toward heaven and our source of salvation. Rays of light shine down; the Rock of Ages supports and protects the penitent sinner. The inner light that radiates from Mary Magdalene tells us the good news: she is forgiven!
El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos): The Penitent Magdalene, ca. 1580-1585. Oil on canvas, 101.6 x 81.92 cm, in the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, MO
ArtWay Visual Meditation April 18, 2010