MARIA MAGDALENA at the Catharijne Convent in Utrecht

Biblical history knows many female saints of which Mary Magdalene is probably the most controversial.  Even though she was present at pivotal moments in the life of Jesus and – of all apostles – closest to him, her character has been blurred for centuries.

It all starts with Pope Gregory who, in 591 CE, mixed a number of different female biblical characters, who all happened to be named Mary, into one: Mary of Magdala, Mary of Bethany and an anonymous woman who was known as a reformed sinner. As a consequence, from then on Mary Magdalene was also seen as a sinful woman.  

I believe this was done deliberately for the church feared Mary of Magdala most. She was known as the apostola apostolorum, the most important of all apostles. The thought alone of a woman being more important than men was outrageous. However they could not completely erase her legacy, so they decided to merge her with the other Mary’s creating a mythical figure, a Mary Mix, as I call this invented character. This Mary Mix was mainly presented as a prostitute and sinner and successfully started a new career being called Mary Magdalene.

Since she played an important role in episodes in the live of Jesus, this Mary Mix was depicted abundantly for artists relied on the gospels. For instance, in the gospels is written that Mary Magdalene washed Christ’s feet (who was in fact the anonymous penitent sinner) Mary Magdalene was present at the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene visits his grave and Mary Magdalene was the first to see Christ after his resurrection. These three were all Mary of Magdala.
That the gospels were inconsistent and referred to different Mary’s and was not always the historical figure Mary of Magdala, never crossed anyone’s mind (or at least not the general public’s) and Pope Gregory cleverly made use of this confusion.

In my opinion, the Catharijneconvent in Utrecht does a really good job unravelling this confusion with the exhibition on Mary Magdalene. The exhibition and explains which perspectives have developed over time shedding light on how this Mary Mix came about.

Research of old scrolls presented in the first room show that Mary of Magdala played and important, if not crucial role, in the live of Jesus. She is indeed the most important of all Mary’s in the mix. She was a powerful, strong and independent woman but – as I see it – she was a threat to the male dominated church and needed to be removed from the scene.
The fact that love and care was one of the basics in Jesus’ message plays an important role in the depiction of the Mary Mix in the arts, for ointment jars are never far away. They actually become her key attribute as can be seen in another room (for instance in a work by Francesco Bianchi Buonavita who used a drawing by Leonardo as inspiration).
Each period in time then will have its own way of depicting the Mary Mix. From the Middle Ages onwards, the sinner aspect becomes more prominent and she is depicted as a woman cutting off her blonde hair (for instance with Gasper de Crayer).

In the late 19th century women are seen as tempting, seducing but angelic at the same time and Alfred Stevens paints her facing us surrounded by glowing aura in which I am tempted to see the real Mary of Magdala.
More recently, the Mary Mix is discovered by feminists as a strong woman and thus becomes popular to underline the feminist philosophy as is shown by work of Marlene Dumas and David LaChapelle/Kim Kardashian.

The exhibition at the Catharijneconvent is successfully showing this fluid role of the Mary Mix floating on the waves of time and appearing in the shape which is most necessary or appealing at that moment. At the conclusion of the exhibition, each visitor now being aware of these different roles within the Mary Mix (prostitute, feminist, lover, wife, apostle,  etc.), can choose which is most appealing to them.

For me personally, this exhibition is all about peeling off layer by layer of the Mary Mix until the one and only Mary of Magdala appears, the apostola apostolorum, the one to whom Jesus appears first and is chosen by him to spread the gospel of love. And it makes me wonder: how different would the world have been, had Pope Gregory and the rest of the church not erased this Mary of Magdala from history….

(Disclaimer: this review expresses my own reflections on this subject, as reviews tend to do)    Wendy Fossen   4th August 2021

MARIA MAGDALENA – the Exhibition continues at at the Catharijneconvent in Utrecht until 9th January 2022