(Note: A version of this op-ed appeared in The Daily on July 17, 2011. It is no longer extant, so I am republishing it here)
In the National Gallery in Washington, you can find one of my favorite paintings. Against a pitch-dark background, an austere and beautiful woman contemplates a skull, a single naked shoulder exposed to view. Her head lies in one hand and a candle throws the foreground into heartbreaking relief.
“The Repentant Magdalen,” painted by the French artist Georges de la Tour around 1640, is a particularly skillful and potent execution of one of the most stereotyped figures in European art. Saint Mary Magdalene, whose feast day will be celebrated this coming Friday, is perhaps the most-depicted woman in Christian art other than Mary the mother of Jesus. She is revered as the “apostle to the apostles,” the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus, dispatched by him to tell the men of his return. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, she is commemorated as one of the myrrh-bearers who came to anoint Jesus’ body after his death. Her name graces cathedrals in France and Spain and parish churches around the world.
But Mary Magdalene is perhaps most famous as an ex-prostitute: a repentant woman of lust whose seven demonic vices were cast out by Jesus; who washed his feet with her tears of contrition; and who lived a life of chaste, sorrowful contemplation — whether of skulls or of her own sins — forever after.
As a consequence, Mary’s cult has long partaken of the fevered, moralistic conventions of male fantasy. De la Tour’s treatment actually counts as one of the more restrained. Another Frenchman, Jules Joseph Lefebvre, in his painting “Mary Magdalene in the Grotto” (1876), removed the skull and hid her face behind her writhing arms, reducing the beleaguered saint to a lewd mass of hair and naked flesh. Her predominant image in Western art has been as an object of pity, arousal, and judgment, a one-woman symbol of everything wrong with the religion that revered her.
Outside of the world of art, Mary became the patron saint of reformed sex workers. The 2009 film “Into Temptation,” in which a prostitute confesses an intention to commit suicide, is set in and around a Catholic parish in Minneapolis named St. Mary Magdalene. Perhaps most notoriously, Mary’s name was adopted by the “Magdalene asylums.” These institutions, both Protestant and Catholic, and based most famously in Ireland, housed single mothers, rape victims and other “fallen women” under conditions that often became abusive and prison-like. The church has long had mixed feelings about unaccompanied women, and Mary Magdalene — the only woman in the Gospels named without reference to a man — captured them all in one sanctimonious, titillating figure.
This image, however, has little basis in the New Testament stories or in the history of the early Christian movement. In the Gospels, Mary is not identified as the woman caught in adultery (whose life Jesus saved by inviting those without sin to cast the first stone); nor is she the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears; nor is she said, at any point, to be a prostitute. Mary did, according to the story in Luke’s Gospel, suffer from possession by demons before being healed by Jesus. At the time, however, demonic possession was understood as akin to illness rather than vice.
For these reasons, churches and scholars have in recent years started distinguishing Mary from the “sinful” women with whom she’s long been identified. Mary Magdalene the famous ex-prostitute has become a famous ex-ex-prostitute.
While Mary’s circumstances are unique, her restoration to respectability is part of a larger trend. The gold-hearted prostitute of legend fit in rather well with a long scholarly tradition that located the followers of Jesus and the first Christian communities in the underclass of the Roman world. Christianity thrived, historians once argued, among the oppressed: slaves, landless laborers, women and people with disabilities. Lately this image of a lumpenproletariat church has been dramatically gentrified. Rodney Stark’s influential 1997 book “The Rise of Christianity” sought to account for the new consensus that early Christians were more likely to be “solid citizens of the empire” than a “mass of degraded outsiders.” The prominent women of the New Testament — and there are quite a few — were often wealthy patronesses of the Christian community, not waifs and scullery maids. Mary’s hometown of Magdala was not a hamlet steeped in peasant misery but a busy hub of the fishing industry.
Mary’s rehabilitation corrects a grave historical error, but this progress comes with a downside, too. Her advocates have, perhaps without meaning to, marginalized society’s “fallen women” all the more by insisting that Mary from Magdala was not one of them. If the afflicted and outcast drew some comfort from identifying with the Skid Row followers of Jesus, it’s a comfort that is not to be found in the bright, upwardly mobile images of the early church we see today. Mary has gotten her good name back, but the scorned and disreputable have lost their most famous friend.