When I heard San Francisco Opera had commissioned a new work
based on the story of Mary Magdalene, I immediately thought of a beautiful woman with long flowing red hair holding a perfume jar. You see, I was an art history major, and for anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with medieval or Renaissance art, the Magdalene is a familiar face.
During the Middle Ages, Mary Magdalene became an incredibly important devotional figure, second only to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Her past as a sinner made it easy for people to identify with her. (She came to be known as a prostitute, although this is apocryphal.) As the first to actually see Jesus after his resurrection, she could give wayward believers hope that they too could achieve that kind of personal experience with God.
One of the most common depictions of Mary Magdalene shows this scene, known as the "Noli me tangere," from the Latin translation for the words that, according to the Gospel of John, the newly-risen Jesus says: "Don’t touch me." This famous version by the Venetian Renaissance artist Titian can be found in the National Gallery in London:
Notice Mary's trademarks: perfume jar, long red hair, and sumptuous robes.
According to the Gospels, Mary (in some cases, with other women) went to Jesus' tomb on the third day after the crucifixion to anoint the body with spices and perfumes. Hence the jar she rests her hand on in Titian's painting. She is also commonly identified as the woman who, earlier in the Gospels, rubs Jesus' feet with expensive perfume and wipes them with her own long tresses.
And why are those tresses red? There doesn’t seem to be a biblical source for the color of Mary's hair, but perhaps red, the color of passion, was artistic shorthand for her identification as a prostitute. In any case, her flowing mane almost always distinguishes her from other female saints in medieval and Renaissance art; their hair is usually covered or at least tied back.
A similar scarlet color can be found in her lavish robes, garments that signal her prior life of decadence. The Magdalene isn’t always pictured dressed this way, however, as strikingly demonstrated in this famous sculpture by Donatello in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence, Italy.
Here Mary Magdalene is shown in one of her other significant roles, as the penitent sinner, fasting in the desert, with only her hair to cover her wasted body.
It is in a similar guise that Mary Magdalene appears in The Last Communion of St. Mary Magdalene by the Master of the Coburg Roundels on view at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. See it for yourself before you experience composer Mark Adamo's version of her story in The Gospel of Mary Magdalene!
Thanks to my father, Dr. Francis DeStefano, for his help with this post. Check out his terrific blog about Renaissance Art, Giorgione et al.