Saturday, April 8, 2017

Art Meditation on Mary Magdalene

As we move into Holy Week, we can prepare by entering our Lord's Passion through the eyes of someone who was there. Here is a meditation on four works of art featuring Mary Magdalene, which I originally wrote for my Moms and Tots ministry.

We know Mary Magdalene best for her visit to Christ’s tomb, bringing the spices to anoint him. While it is not certain, many also believe she is the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair at the home of the Pharisee in Luke 7: 36-50. 

In this painting by Nik Helbig, Mary and Jesus are painted in an impressionist style. The softness of the lines surrounding them give the illusion of her hair, which is the same color as Jesus’ hands and cloak. We are meant to see that His spirit and hers are united in this moment where she honors Jesus and is forgiven of all her sins. The brightest part of this painting is her face, right in the center. Her eyes are open as she gazes at His feet, gently touching them. And we see this touch echoed above, as Jesus lays His hand gently on her head.  As you look at this painting, what sort of emotions come to you? The colors are like a rainbow after a storm, evoking the hope that comes after darkness. Mary is peaceful, yet not happy. Her sins have burdened her so much all her life. This is the very moment of her forgiveness; she has not yet felt the weight lifting off her. She is still bent, crouched over the feet of the only one who she believes can save her. What is she thinking right now, as she feels Jesus lay his hand on her head? Take a moment to sit with this painting and allow the Lord to speak to you through this image.

The next painting depicts Mary at the tomb on Easter morning. It is titled Noli Me Tangere (Latin for “Do not touch me” or “Do not cling to me”) and was painted by James Jacques Joseph Tissot. In John’s Gospel, when Mary finally recognizes Jesus, she falls down to worship Him. He replies, telling her not to hold on to him, because he has not yet ascended to the Father, but to go and tell the disciples that she has seen Him. In this painting, though they are very close, there is a distance between them. Mary does not look at Jesus; her face is pressed into the ground, but she raises her hands in supplication. She knows this is the Son of God, risen from the dead. The apologetics site “Unam Sanctam Catholicam” describes the moment this way:
In addition to fear of the Lord, Christ inspired within Mary a deepening of faith through His gentle command to cease touching Him. Physically touching the Lord surely served as a great comfort to Mary Magdalene. In the midst of our Lord’s Passion, Mary remained close to Him, right beside the Cross. In the midst of her great grief, the body of our Lord is that which Mary sought. Yet, Mary’s faith was great; hence, she was the first witness of the Resurrection, the first one to see the Risen Lord. With the removal of this comfort from physical touch, with this abandonment of self, Mary would have to grow in faith. Her faith in Christ, rather than physical touching of Christ, would have to be her comfort and consolation. This deepening of faith in Mary Magdalene certainly would have been preparatory for the time between Christ’s Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Spirit. It is as though by saying “For I have not yet ascended to the Father” Christ is also revealing to Mary that His salvation of mankind is not yet finished; He still must ascend to Heaven and send His Spirit. With the sending of the Holy Spirit, there is a more complete restoration of the union, the “touch,” between Christ and man. Mary was being told to wait, rely on her faith, wait for the Spirit, and grow keen to the spiritual Presence of our Lord.
Notice some of the details the artist has included, and ponder what meaning they have to you. Jesus’ hand is in the three fingered blessing that was common in early Medieval and Renaissance art. The three outstretched fingers alludes to the Trinity. Is he blessing Mary, or showing us that He is going to the Father? Both the tomb and the temple are visible in this painting. The tomb housed the body of Christ and was the site of His resurrection. The temple was the spiritual center of the Jewish faith, and housed the Ark of the Covenant the Word of God. Christ, too, is the Word of God, and the tomb parallels the Temple where God Himself entered to encounter His people. Take a moment to examine the painting, and see if the Lord gives you any other insights.

Here is Mary in a very different light. Mark Hough paints her standing, her eyes lifted, her face full of wonder and awe. The halo behind her head signifies that she is a holy woman, and the banner above her head proclaims “I have seen the Lord!” but it is her face that communicates most clearly her encounter with God. Notice how her hand is in almost the same position as Jesus’ in the last painting. But she is not blessing the Apostles; she is instructing them. Here is Mary as the messenger, the original evangelist, proclaiming the Good News. The columns and arches behind her evoke the naves of a Cathedral, and her rich and beautiful clothes are colored with Christian symbolism: Red for martyrdom and the blood Christ shed on the cross, Gold for his kingship and the glory of his resurrection, White for purity, forgiveness, and salvation, and a thin band of blue, the color of our Blessed Mother, which binds together Christ’s sacrifice and our redemption.

Take a moment to reflect on this image. If you were one of the Apostles, seeing Mary come to you like this, would you believe something miraculous and inexplicable had indeed occurred?

Lastly we have this painting by Francesco Hayez, titled:  Crucifixion with Mary Magdalene Kneeling and Weeping. In this image we see brought together all three of her roles. She is wiping his feet with her hair, as she did to honor him at the home of the Pharisee. Now she does it to comfort him in his agony. See how one arm embraces the cross? At the time, she would not have known its glory, but from the perspective of history, we the viewer can see that the cross is an instrument of salvation. Just as she was forgiven all her sins, so  are we. The cross is glorious, we adore it as we adore Christ because he sanctified it. We will venerate the cross this coming Holy Thursday, as Mary Magdalene is doing here. Look now at her face. Her eyes are downcast, yet she has a slight smile, and her face is bright like the line of the horizon behind her. The darkness surrounds Jesus, except for a circle almost like a halo  just around the top of the cross. But around Mary it is not dark.  She still has Jesus, and that brings her hope and life.  But death is coming. The skull beside the Cross, Christ's closed eyes, and the descending darkness makes that clear. Here  were are at the very last moments of Christ’s life, and Mary is clinging to him, and clinging to the Cross.

When Mary Magdalene sees the man at Jesus’ tomb, she thinks he is a gardener. It doesn’t occur to her that it is Jesus. She is blinded by her grief, her own human failings, because in that moment, she believed her struggles were greater than God himself.  She has forgotten Christ’s promise that he will rebuild this temple in three days (Cf, Jn 2:19).  She, who sat at the feet of Jesus as he suffered on the cross, does not recognize that Christ is standing in front of her. 

Take a moment now to see God in this painting, and to seek Him in your heart and in your everyday fears and hardships.

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