My website, MyGiorgione, now includes my interpretations of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; and Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione".

Friday, March 2, 2012

Mary Magdalen

On March 9, 2012 I will present my interpretation of Titian's "Sacred and Profane Love" as "the Conversion of Mary Magdalen" at the annual meeting of the South Central Renaissance Society to be held this year in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, I thought to put up a few images here interspersed with commentary from Anna Jameson's chapter on Mary Magdalen in her "Sacred and Legendary Art." All citations are from v. 1 of the 1895 edition.***

Next to the Madonna, Mary Magdalen was the most popular female saint of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Around 1495 Giovanni Bellini's depicted her with the legendary Catherine of Alexandria, alongside the Madonna and Child. She stands to the right and her beautiful flowing red hair is enough to identfy her.

Mrs. Jameson believed that many of the attempts to depict the famous sinner/ saint were not so successful.

"As a subject for painting, it is rich in picturesque capabilities. It combines all that can inspire with all they can chasten the fancy; yet, when we review what has been done, how inadequate the result!....Where the penitent prevails, the saint appears degraded; where the wasted, unclad form is seen attenuated by vigils and exposed in haggard unseemliness, it is a violation of that first great rule of Art which forbids the repulsive and the painful.... On the other hand, where sensual beauty has obviously been the paramount home and idea in the artist's work, defeating its holiest purpose and perverting its high significance, the violation on the moral sentiment is yet more revolting. This is especially the fault of the later painters, more particularly of the schools of Venice and Bologna..." (341)

Below find her descriptions of different types of representation.


"When exhibited to us as the patron saint of repentant sinners, Mary Magdalene is sometimes a thin wasted figure, with long disheveled hair of a pale golden hue falling over her shoulders almost to the ground;...  But not seldom the sole drapery is her long redundant hair." (348)


"But, in her character of patron St. Mary Magdalene was not always represented with the squalid or pathetic attributes of humiliation and penance. She became idealized as a noble dignified creature bearing no traces of sin or of sorrow on her beautiful face; her luxuriant hair bound in tresses round her head; her drapery rich and ample; the vase of ointment in her hand or at her feet, or borne by an angel near her. Not unfrequently she is attired with the utmost magnificence, either in reference to her former state of worldly prosperity, or rather, perhaps,…it was a common custom to clothe all the ideal figures of female saints in rich habits.... A beautiful instance may be seen in a picture by Signorelli, at Orvieto, where she is standing in a landscape, her head uncovered, and the rich golden hair partly braided, partly flowing over her shoulders; she wears a magnificent tunic embroidered with gold, over it a flowing mantle descending to her feet; she holds a vase with her left hand, and points to it with the right." (348)

Raphael: "St. Cecilia" 

"In the St. Cecilia of Raphael, she stands on the left, St. Paul being on the right of the principal figure; they are here significant of the conversion of the man through power, of the woman through love, from a state of reprobation to a state of reconcilement and grace. St. Paul leans in deep meditation on his sword." (351)

Caravaggio: Martha and Mary
"There are two classes of subjects in which Mary Magdalene is richly habited, and which must be carefully distinguished; those above described, in which she figures as patron saint, and those which represent her before her conversion, as the votary of luxury and pleasure." (352)


"The Magdalene of Titian was so celebrated in his own time that he painted at least five or six repetition repetitions of it, and copies of engravings have since been multiplied. The eyes, swimming in tears, are raised to heaven; the long disheveled hair flows over her shoulders; one hand is pressed on her bosom, the other rests on the skull; the forms are full and round, the coloring rich; a book and a box of ointment lie before her on a fragment of rock. She is sufficiently woeful, but seems rather to regret her past life than to repent of it, nor is there anything in the expression which can secure us against the relapse.... His idea, therefore, of St. Mary Magdalene was the fusion of an antique statue and a girl taken out of the streets; and with all its beauties as a work of art--and very beautiful it is--this chef-d'oeuvre of Titian is, to my taste, most unsatisfactory." (355)

Mrs. Jameson did not approve of Titian's voluptuous penitent sinner but she did admire Raphael's version for a church in Bologna done at about the same time as Titian's Sacred and Profane Love. In this version she looks out at the viewer as if to say, "If I could do it, so too can you,"

Raphael: detail of MM

"Many have well represented the particular situation, the appropriate sentiment, the sorrow, the hope, the devotion; but who has given us the character? A noble creature, with strong sympathies and a strong will, with powerful faculties of every kind, working for good or evil,--such a woman Mary Magdalene must have been, even in her humiliation; and the feeble, girlish, commonplace, and even vulgar women selected as models…by throwing up their eyes and letting down their hair, ill represent the enthusiastic convert or the majestic patroness." (374)###

***For more modern studies of the Magdalen see Susan Haskins, "Mary Magdalen, Myth and Metaphor, NY, 1994, and  Katherine Ludwig Jansen, "The Making of the Magdalen, Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages", Princeton, 2000. 


  1. Congratulations on your upcoming presentation! I can tell that you have put a lot of work into creating your slideshow presentation. You have some very nice images.

    It's nice to see all of these various interpretations of the Magdalene in one place (pre-conversion, a disheveled figure with long hair, etc.). I hope your presentation goes well.


  2. Monica:

    Thanks for your well wishes. I'll try to report on the conference. Glad you liked the Magdalen images.