Gentileschi’s Magdalene

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Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap

One of the most powerful invitations which the Lenten season presents to you and me is the one taken from the Second Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians: “Be reconciled to God” (2 2 Cor 5:20).

I was recently amazed by an extraordinary painting painted by one of the greatest female artists of the 17th century, Artemisia Gentileschi, namely “The Penitent Magdalene”. Undoubtely this painting embodies Gentileschi’s culminating success in Florence. Despite the male dominated world of art she managed to get her painting talent highly appreciated and valued by her contemporaries and others to come.

When one studies the opus in detail one cannot but agree with the famous art critic, Ward Bissell, that since the painting’s intention is precisely to show the moment of conversion rather than the act of penitence of Mary Magdalene, it would be more appropriate to name it “The Conversion of the Magdalene”. In fact, he is totally right in that Gentileschi’s genius made her unravel Mary Magdalene’s character in thedecisive moment of her conversion.

Mary Magdalene is dressed in contemporary dress as a courtesan, within a boudoir setting, sitting on her elaborately detailed chair. The latter’s colours are rich, maroon for the velvet cushion and a rich gold for the brocade along the edges of the fabric. Thetable next to her is likewise covered with elegant green velvet. Gentileschi purposely put the skull and the mirror instead of the instruments and books that the courtesan utilized. Furthermore, unlike the courtesan would do, Gentileschi’s Mary Magdalene is not wearing shoes. The artist purposely exposes one of Mary Magdalene’s feet. Thebare foot of Magdalene manifests that the figure has rejected an element of her past vanities. What remains from her past life are her elegant hair and extravagant dress.

Lisa Koen’s comment on this painting is very illuminating. “When I look at Artemisia’s painting, I like to imagine that Mary Magdalene, having just encountered Christ, enters her room, silently removes her shoes and replaces the items on her dressing table with the skull and mirror. She sits down in her chair and looks into themirror, contemplating her past life and meditating on the skull, a vivid reminder of her own mortality. She recognizes herself as a sinner who has been touched by divinity. Her home had been ‘a paradise for her lovers, now she herself ha(s) to seek another ideal place… to which to direct her thoughts.’
She turns from the mirror and looks out toward the viewer. The lips of Gentileschi’s Magdalene are parted, as if she is on the verge of saying something. Tempted to speak, she chooses silence. Instead Mary realizes that her redemption is so complete, she need not say a word. Then her eyes begin their gaze upward toward heaven. She places her right hand over her left breast just above her heart as if she feels the intensity of her conversion. The hand on her heart is a symbol of her faithfulness to Christ”.

Put simply “The Penitent Magdalene” speaks eloquently of what real conversion is all about. Primarily, conversion is a break from the past done not only internally but also externally. And, secondarily, conversion is about reorienting one’s focus on the “things not seen” (Heb 11:1). Accordingly Gentileschi’s Mary Madgeline gives the viewer thecertitude that her “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). The Magdalene’s faith is so strong that she does not feel the needto speak even if she seems on the brink of uttering a word.

Lent is the time when our actions should speak far louder than our often empty promises. Thus, let us fast from hurting words and say kind words, from sadness and be filled with gratitude, from anger and be filled with patience, from pessimism and be filled with hope, from worries and trust in God, from complaints and contemplate simplicity, from pressures and be prayerful, from bitterness and fill your heart with joy,from selfishness and be compassionate to others, from grudges and be reconciled, from words and be silent so you can listen.

In all this Artemisia Gentileschi’s biblical heroine, Mary Magdalene, is surely the most compelling example.

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