Visions of Mary Magdalene

In early Christian art, Mary Magdalene was a key figure in the Resurrection of Christ, as first witness and ‘apostle to the apostles’. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona explores how her significance was set in stone, tiled on walls, and carved in wood and ivory.


From the earliest Christian eras, Mary Magdalene surfaced as a significant, if enigmatic, female figure in Christian art. The authors of the Christian scriptures provided only minimal biographical information about this woman from whom Jesus exorcised seven demons, and who became his most faithful female follower, was present at the Crucifixion, and was among the Holy Women who sought to administer the traditional anointing to his dead body. More importantly, she was the first person to see and to recognise the Resurrection, thereby becoming known as the apostola apostolorum (‘apostle to the apostles’) in Western Christianity and isapóstolos (‘holy equal to the apostles’) in the East.

The 4th-century AD San Celso sarcophagus, which shows two heavily veiled women approaching the Empty Tomb and then, on the far right, revering the standing figure of the resurrected Christ. Image: © NPL – DeA Picture Library/G Cigolini/Bridgeman Images

While art and cultural historians continue to debate when and how Christian art developed, a visual code of signs and symbols began to emerge in the liturgical and then daily life of the nascent Christian community. Early Christianity surfaced throughout the Mediterranean basin and matured under the influence of late antiquity. During that formative period, Christian believers and those interested in this new religious tradition learned the teachings of Jesus and the principles and practice of being a Christian by listening to the recitations and exegeses of the Gospel. From its onset, perhaps the most striking element of this new religion was the teaching of salvation promised to all who believed in Jesus as the Christ and the meaning of his Passion-Death-Resurrection.

Procession of women from a fragment of wall painting from the baptistery of the Christian building (house church) at Dura-Europos. Paint on plaster, c.AD 240-245. Size: 95 x 140cm. Image: Yale University Art Gallery

As the initial Christian centuries progressed, the visual arts came to play a more and more substantial role in religious pedagogy and liturgical celebrations. The minimalistic images of signs and symbols progressed, as human figures became recognised through their roles within the narrative depictions. One of these early figures was Mary Magdalene, included initially for her role throughout the narrative cycle of the Passion-Death-Resurrection of Christ, especially in the Procession of the Holy Women to the Tomb.

Over 2,000 years, many threads have come together to create the figure of Mary Magdalene – what I refer to as the ‘Magdalene mosaic’. A critical element of this mosaic played a part in the labelling of the ‘Procession of the [Holy] Women’ in what are often identified as among the earliest Christian paintings outside the Roman catacombs, here on the walls of the baptistery of the Christian building, the domus ecclesiae or house church, at Dura-Europos in modern Syria. While known to classical scholars through literary sources, the actual ‘discovery’ of this Hellenistic, Parthian, and Roman border city, including its Christian house church, began in 1885 with the Wolfe Expedition and then was continued after both the First Word War and the Arab Revolt by French, British, and American archaeologists. Open to interpretation and debate since they were uncovered in the 1920s and 1930s, these painted figures on the side walls led to the archway framing the central wall and date to c.AD 240-245.

Given the damage to the original works, the initial identification of the fragments of two female figures and the suggestion of a third along with the elaborate stars on the wall painting as the ‘Arrival of the Pious Women to the Sepulchre’ was logical. So too was the naming of the most visible and first female holding a torch in her right hand and a bowl in her left hand as Mary Magdalene, considering her later position of processional prominence in works of early Christian art. As the scholarship and excavations of the Dura house church continued throughout the 1930s, however, it became obvious that there were more than three female figures represented on each of these side walls, as the lower fragments revealed the presence of approximately five sets of feminine feet on each wall. Thereby the conversation shifted from this being the earliest Christian image of Mary Magdalene and her companion Myrrophores (‘myrrh-bearing women’) processing to anoint the body of the crucified Jesus to it being a presentation of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, described in Matthew 25:1-13 and represented in a similar fashion in the illustration in the 6th century from the Rossano Gospel.

Both the significant 1935 text and the 1956 final report on the Yale excavation of the Dura house church by the eminent archaeologist and historian Carl H Kraeling led to a temporary hiatus in this controversy. Kraeling returned to the earlier identification of the Magdalene and the other holy women, given the discovery in Dura of a Greek fragment from Tatian’s Diatessaron (a textual compilation of the Four Gospels) identifying five women going to the sepulchre.

Circular box (pyxis) with the women at Jesus’ tomb. Mary Magdalene is identified as the figure with the censer on the left of the domed building. Elephant ivory with metalwork and paint, Byzantine, 6th century AD. Size: 10.8 x 12.7 x 11.1cm. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York / Public Domain

All things being equal, however, there is no agreement even among the Evangelists as to the number of Holy Women: Matthew identifies two, Mark and Luke three, and John only one – although significantly that one is Mary Magdalene. As archaeological and textual sources, along with early Christian works of art, have come into sharper focus, it is apparent that the best identification of the women in the Dura house church is most likely premised on the narrative of the Wise and Foolish Virgins in a conflation of several Christian liturgical ceremonies, as discussed in Michael Peppard’s 2016 book The World’s Oldest Church: bible, art, and ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria.

Nonetheless, Mary Magdalene occupied a pivotal place in the early Christian art of the 4th to the 8th centuries in its many diversities from sarcophagi and ecclesial adornments to liturgical objects, manuscript illuminations, and pilgrimage souvenirs. Although we can identify her in scenes of the Crucifixion and Empty Tomb, it is her position as First Witness to the Resurrection that may prove to be the most intriguing in these varied media, especially as the controversies over the divine and human nature of Jesus as the Christ and the singularity of Mary as his mother raged.

Detail of a censer with scenes from the life of Christ, showing the Holy Women at the Tomb. Bronze, Byzantine, c.6th-7th century. Size: 11.43 x 12.07cm (with chain 50.8cm). Image: Adolph D and Wilkins C Williams Fund

An excellent example of an early Christian sarcophagus with a depiction of the Magdalene in her dual role as a Myrrophore at the Empty Tomb and then as the First Witness of the Resurrection is the San Celso Sarcophagus. On it, two heavily veiled female figures walk toward the Empty Tomb; the first bows her head, while the second raises hers to acknowledge the angel who gestures toward the open door of the round tower that represents the aedicule, the small chapel housing the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. As the viewer’s eye moves to the right, the two women reappear in similar postures of reverence and recognition – something we see over and over again – before the standing figure of the resurrected Christ.

The carved wooden door panels at the Church of Santa Sabina, Rome, early 5th century. In the top left corner is one of the earliest depictions of the Crucifixion, with ‘Women and Angel at the Empty Tomb’ in the panel next to it. The third panel down on the left is ‘Resurrected Christ Appears to Disciples’ – the first figure in this group of three disciples could be identified as the Magdalene, with her outstretched hands and veiled and bowed head. Photo: Travis Fullerton © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; Dreamstime

As well as on stone sarcophagi, early Christian carvers incorporated Mary Magdalene into ivory panels. The seated angel on the lower register of the Ascension panel of the early 5th-century Reidersche Tafel directs the viewer’s eye across the elegantly domed aedicule towards three veiled women. Above them, the haloed figure of the resurrected Christ clasps the hand of God as he climbs up to the heavens. The gestures of the three Myrrophores (the Magdalene identified as the one directly beneath the feet of Christ) again signify their reverence, but also their task of anointing.

Mary Magdalene’s sorrow is emphasised in her gesture on another early 5th-century ivory, one of the four small ivories that form the Passion Plaque from the British Museum. She is one of two women at the Empty Tomb, veiled and standing with her chin on her bent right arm in the classical pose of grief and sorrow.

The late 6th-century illumination of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection in the Rabbula Gospels. On the far right of the upper register (Crucifixion) are the so-called ‘Three Marys’, with the Magdalene in a blue mantle in the leadership position. She appears again in the Resurrection register, with the haloed Virgin Mary at the Empty Tomb (left) and encountering the resurrected Christ (right). Image: Wikimedia Commons/ Wooofer [CC-BY-SA 4.0]

Innovations in the iconology of Mary Magdalene can be seen in an early 6th-century circular ivory box (pyxis) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Identified as ‘The Women at Jesus’s Tomb’, the carefully detailed figures of female orantes that move around the pyxis take on varied liturgical postures, suggesting the ceremonial functions of the Myrrophores. Primary among them is Mary Magdalene, who stands to the left of the domed building, which represents simultaneously both the Empty Tomb and the liturgical services held at the altar, here revealed by the tied-back curtains. She holds a censer in her right hand, as she rests her chin on her bent left hand in a classical gesture of grief, while three companions take on the standing prayer postures known as orans, mimicking the pose of Christ on the Cross. The Magdalene’s associations with the liturgy continue later, for example with a late 6th-/early 7th-century bronze censer decorated with scenes from the life of Christ (now in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), which shows her in the lead position among the Holy Women at the Tomb.

Intriguing visual examples of Mary Magdalene in a narrative pattern feature in the famous early 5th-century carved wooden door panels at the Church of Santa Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill. Immediately next to one of the earliest depictions of the Crucifixion on the upper register is the panel identified as ‘Women and Angel at the Empty Tomb’. The veiled figures of two women are greeted by the monumental, winged angel within the aedicule. The lower register begins with the panel entitled the ‘Resurrected Christ Appears to Disciples’. Christ stands with his right hand raised in a gesture of blessing, greeting, and also teaching, as three disciples approach. The first figure in this group could be identified as the Magdalene, with her outstretched hands and veiled and bowed head. If this is Mary Magdalene, one could interpret the image as a presentation of her receiving her vocation as apostle to the apostles.

Once Christianity came into its own as a legitimately recognised religion in the Roman Empire, and as that empire expanded into Byzantium, Christian pilgrims travelled to the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and the saints. Central to this religious practice was the devotional custom of collecting pilgrimage souvenirs as both tangible signs of their visits to sacred sites and as instruments they hoped would bring spiritual healing that led to salvation, if not release from physical ailment(s). Normally these pilgrimage souvenirs were either inscribed with designs that denote the sacred site visited or contained some consecrated substance, such as holy oil or a natural material that could promote the spiritual devotion of the pilgrim or healing for an ailing family member. Depictions of the Magdalene, as either the First Witness to the Resurrection, Myrrophore, or forgiven sinner, were suitable for spiritual support on, for example, ampullae (flasks for bringing holy water and consecrated oil back from the Holy Land).

Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary at the Empty Tomb, as seen in the 6th-century mosaics of the Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. Image: akg-images/André Held

Pilgrimage souvenirs – especially natural objects such as stones, wood, or dirt that were sanctified by their place of origin or proximity to the physical body of Jesus, his mother, or a saint, or corporal or material fragments of a holy person – were often placed in ornate containers known as reliquaries. One of the finest examples of this custom is the 6th-century wooden reliquary painted with scenes of the life of Christ of the Lateran Treasury, now in the collection of the Vatican Museums. The five images painted on the lid include one of the Holy Women at the Tomb. As we have already seen, the Procession of the Holy Women to the Tomb is a major motif in the Magdalene’s iconography, though the number of Holy Women varies in the scriptures. But, in an Eastern Christian practice dominant especially in Syria and Palestine, the ‘two women’ at the Empty Tomb (and at the first appearance of the resurrected Christ) were the Theotokos (Mary as the God-Bearer) and Mary Magdalene. On the reliquary, following the visual formula favoured in Eastern Christianity, two veiled women – one dressed in dark blue and the other in a shade of red – approach the domed aedicule as the seated angel raises his right arm in greeting. Traditionally, the Theotokos is dressed in blue, as reflected in the other segment panels in which she is appears, while Mary Magdalene is dressed in various shades of red or blue.

The specific motif of the Theotokos and the Magdalene at the Empty Tomb and Resurrection is called the chairete – from the Greek meaning ‘greeting’, as in ‘hail’. This iconography features, for example, in the late 6th-century illumination of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of the Rabbula Gospels. The upper of the two horizontal registers depicts the Crucifixion, but it contains more figures beyond the crucified Christ in the centre, the two thieves to his right and left, the Roman soldiers, and the Virgin Mary with John the Evangelist. For on the far right are also the figures of the so-called ‘Three Marys’. The Magdalene is in the leadership position, wearing a blue mantle covering her head, torso, and hands.

She appears again on the lower register as she stands next to the Theotokos who, greeting an angel, is distinguished in her dark purple mantle and halo-encased head. On the other side of the elaborate aedicule, with its open door and sleeping Roman soldiers in the foreground, is the upright figure of the resurrected Christ and the two Marys kneeling at his feet. The first female figure is that of the Virgin, with her purple mantle and halo, raising her right hand in recognition of her son’s greeting, while the Magdalene kneels further back, with her head turned upward as she attends to Christ’s gesture and his face.

A similar visualisation of this last sequence, even down to the colour of the two women’s garments, is found in the mid-6th-century mosaics of the Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. The raised right hand of the seated angel, draped in white, directs the viewer’s eye toward the tomb and, beyond that, to the outstretched right hands both of the golden-garbed figure of Mary Magdalene and of the mVirgin Mary, dressed in gold-trimmed royal purple. The visual harmony of the three outstretched right hands merge in the middle of the panel, which calls attention to the open door that signals that the tomb is empty.

The significance of the chairete motif in the Resurrection and of the Magdalene’s place in this narrative can be seen in a 7th-century icon now in the library of St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai. In the dramatic encounter, which is accentuated by the narrow vertical format of the icon and the nearly vertical line passing through the figures’ hands, Christ enters from stage left with his right hand raised in a gesture of blessing. The kneeling figure of the Magdalene (whose hands reach out to touch Christ’s feet) is placed midway between mother (with open hands) and son. Although all three figures wear haloes, the standing female figure on the far right is identifiable as the Theotokos by the inscription ‘MP’ (initial sign for the Greek word for mother) by her head.

Despite the minimal scriptural references, the importance of the Magdalene was acknowledged in the faith and communal life of the earliest Christian collective. Her multivalent persona was recognised by believers and inspired artists as she became the most flexible female figure in Christian art and culture. This brief review provides a range of Christian art from pedagogical, devotional, ceremonial, liturgical, and pilgrimage works that highlighted her central role throughout the Passion-Death-Resurrection as both anointer and witness. From these earliest models, she evolved into one of the most popular and well-known figures in Christian art, as devoted follower, penitential figure, and ecstatic saint – with her most significant role that of First Witness of the resurrected Christ.

Mary Magdalene: a visual history by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona was recently published in hardback by T&T Clark (ISBN 978-0567705747; £17.99). 
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