Friday, July 22, 2005

Magdalene in Florence and Rome

Today is the feast day of Saint Mary Magdalene, also known as The Myrrh-Bearer." (Her alabaster jar shows up in many paintings.) Some think she is called "The Magdalene" not so much because she came from the town of Magdala, but because the word means "tower." In other words, the Magdalene is a fortress of strength.

When Bede and I visited Florence, we chose the Magdalene for our focal point to keep us from becoming overwhelmed by all of the paintings. It started out as a simple "I Spy" game but soon became something more compelling. One painting in particular that stayed with me portrayed Christ with all of his male disciples around him, but looking steadfastly out over their heads toward the Magdalene. Christ’s and the Magdalene’s eyes are locked upon each other’s faces. They know something we don’t, and that “something” is mystical and good. In other paintings, she is hidden, and in some, the third Magi looks a lot like the Renaissance depiction of the Magdalene with long red hair.

Along the way, I decided that I wanted to bring home a household statue of the Magdalene. Every store and market had an abundance of Theotokos statues. Other saints showed up from time to time, but we gradually realized that there might be one Magdalene statue in all of Rome. At one shop, Bede and I came close to finding the statue when we came across a figure of a woman holding a jar. However, she also held a scrap of cloth that looked like the shroud of Turin. We asked, and the shop-keepers assured us that the statue was of the Magdalene, but we knew better: she was Veronica (“true image”), the apocryphal saint who wiped the face of Christ with a cloth, and kept his image upon that cloth thereafter.

On the last day of the Rome trip, we went into a religious-items shop that looked exactly like all of the other religious-items shops we had visited. I went straight to the collection of saint statues in a corner of the shop, peered through the glass, and asked, “Who is she, the statue in the back?” The shopkeeper took out the wooden statue for me. The statue depicted a woman who looked like a dairy-maid with long, swirling red and gold robes. She had a jar in her hands. “Who is she?” I asked again, in my faulty Italian. The shopkeeper went away for a moment to confer with her supervisor, and then came back to tell me:

“Maria Maddalena.”


Here is an earlier post about Mary Magdalene.

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