Vienna in 2010

MARY MAGDALENE IN A GROTTO THEME

IN THE BADEN MONUMENT AND IN PAINTINGS

I wondered why an author in 2008 wanted to use my particular photo of Mary Magdalene in a cave for his book-cover, a biography of the Saint that is still awaiting publication.  It is the Mary Magdalene just seen in my photos of the Baden plague monument.  

The reason, I am coming to find out, is because the portrayal of her as a young woman with a very satisfied expression and smile is unique.  She is always portrayed as a beautiful young woman.  But never with a smile.  She is always being shown doing penance for past sins.  

So the Baden portrayal is unique, and it fits the occasion: jubilance over the disappearance of the Black Death in the region after a particularly severe bout that killed many thousands locally, hundreds of thousands in the region!

For my non-scholarly purposes the authoritative source for all things related to Mary Magdalene on the internet is http://magdalene.org/

On that site it says:

One of the ways that we can learn about Mary Magdalene and what was thought about her at any given time in any given location is to look at the art produced by that culture. The way that she appears in paintings, sculptures, and now in popular art forms, can tell us a great deal about how she was viewed.

If we were to look at a progression, we would see the oldest art depicting her as a myrrhophore, one of the women who went to anoint Jesus' body in the tomb. Later, we see her in crucifixion art weeping at the foot of the cross. When there was a great deal more emphasis on penitence as a virtue during the Middle Ages, she was frequently depicted in postures of repentance and sorrow for her alleged sins. French legends of her retirement into a grotto is reflected in artwork set in a cave, with Mary Magdalene meditating on worldly symbols of vanity.

To me, the Baden monument sets her into a cave, and it is not unlike these paintings in that respect except that she is looking rather happy in Baden and rather penitent in most paintings.

BUT: this brings up several questions:  (1) did Mary Magdalene live for a time in a grotto in what is now France? (2) did she live there not very well dressed? (3) why is she usually shown unhappy, and prayerfully penitent? (4) why, in the plague-monument in Baden, is she shown happy? This fourth question is the important one, all the others simply lead up to it.

The first three questions are readily answered by referring to two recent biographies of Mary Magdalene:

Beloved Disciple, The Misunderstood Legacy of Mary Magdalene, the Woman Closest to Christ, by Robin Griffith-Jones (Harper One, 2008). On his pages 188-190 Griffith-Jones explains the likely confusion of, and combination of, two Marys: Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt, who may have been black hence the phenomenon of the Black Madonna in France and elsewhere.

Mary of Egypt was a prostitute who went to the desert for 47 years to live like a hermit to do penance. Supposedly she was dressed in only her own hair, something approached in some of the paintings of Mary Magdalene in her grotto in France (see below).

Mary Magdalene, Christianity's Hidden Goddess, by Lynn Picknett (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004). Pages 94 through 99 has Picknett presenting her version of the myth of Mary Magdalene landing just west of Marseilles at what is now the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and moving inland to live in a cave near Saint Baume as a penitent hermit for forty years. During this time she was actively teaching religion and (herself!) baptizing converts. Her religion was likely esoteric, would in later centuries be declared heretical, and her cult, later embodied in the Church of Mary Magdalene, was connected with the Cathar faith in some way and both were ruthlessly rooted out during the Albigensian Crusade. Picknett also discusses the conflation of the Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt stories.

So she is shown living in a grotto (a rock-shelter, not a cave) because she either did or did not do so in actuality in southern France. She may have been wrongly conflated with a penitent prostitute who became famous for living forty years dressed in only her hair, in the desert of Egypt, as a hermit, doing penance for her sins for 47 years after which she is totally forgiven and dies and is buried by a wild lion who has become her friend.

Picknett quite explicitly suggests that it is likely that the entire Mary Magdalene story, of her surviving an arduous water-journey to escape her persecutors, and land in France, is a myth from start to finish. But like other myths, it had devoted followers who embellished it, spread it, and made it into a religion of its own which grew until it was violently snuffed out.

Myth or not, it was a powerful story with all the elements that would attract master painters and sculptors. It had its erotic component, a desirable almost naked female. It had pathos, sin needing to be expiated through serious penance. And it had triumph as well with the penitent receiving a sign of forgiveness through a vision of her own coming exaltation, being lifted by angels into the very Presence!

What does this have to do with the happy-looking Mary Magdalene in Baden?  It was a time of great rejoicing, it seemed the plague had been lifted from lower Austria, so a sculptor celebrated the feeling by likening the survivors to the happy Mary Magdalene.  She was happy because she was forgiven and had as a sign the vision of her own exaltation, and the citizens of Baden had as their sign of forgiveness the waning of the Black Death!

That is my answer to question 4. Of course it is my answer. It may not be yours.

There are paintings that come close to having her look satisfied with herself.  Knowing that angels are watching over her and that she has been forgiven all past misdeeds may be the reason in these two paintings:

SOURCE NOTE: The following images are all taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Mary_Magdalene_as_a_hermit

Click on the link for this “Wikimedia” page for the sources from which these photos were taken.  All are public domain photos.

In this next one she has no expression, she is asleep, but having a vision of her own exaltation [note her halo!] with angels carrying her into the very Presence of God!

In most paintings, however, she is very sober, even sad, in her cave:

I like the fact that in this next one she is shedding a tear!

Why the partial nudity, or in some cases, like the next two paintings, total nudity?

Note the long hair in both the above paintings.  As the books cited above said, Mary Magdalene's legend had become thoroughly intertwined and confounded with the legend of Mary of Egypt who lived naked, dressed only in her very long hair.

Some artists seemed to have been very aware of their being part of a conflation of two legends.  The next painting is clearly confounding Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt. It is an illustration in the life of Mary Magdalene that is based on an occurrence in the life of Mary of Egypt.  Wikimedia states that this painting is part of a series of "Scenes from the Life of Mary Magdalene: The Hermit Zosimus Giving a Cloak to Magdalene." It is from a fresco from the Magdalene Chapel, Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi. The subject, cloak and even the name of old hermit was taken into Magdalene's history from the "Life of St. Mary of Egypt."  The artist is Italian, named Giotto, and it is dated to the 1320s.

So do I believe that Mary Magdalene was ever in southern France,  That she lived for a time in a grotto as depicted above?

I tend to not believe.  But if I did believe that she made it to shores that are now French, I'd rather believe in the very active teacher of an esoteric religion that influenced and impressed a large swath of country and humanity, creating a religion that lasted for over a thousand years.  I'd rather believe in such a dynamic person than in the  passive, naked woman hermit grieving over sins-of-the-flesh, over her past life as a prostitute.  

We know she was never a prostitute, Mary of Egypt (also mythical, more than likely) was.  If she lived in southern France, then for much of the year going naked as depicted is not humanly bearable, no matter how long one's hair!

Arrive in Vienna once more

Repeat your walk in the Wienerwald (Vienna Woods)

Repeat your underground boat ride in the Seegrotte

 Revisit Vienna's and Baden's plague monuments

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