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Marie-Madeleine in the West (Antiquity, early 20th century)

Mary Magdalene is one of the most popular characters of the New Testament and certainly the one that arouses the most fantasies as illustrated by the success of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Its complex history and religious importance make it one of the major artistic themes which, despite certain characteristic features, show great diversity. A major exhibition at the Royal Monastery of Brou then in Carcassonne, then in Douai allows beyond myth and religion to understand the history of this figure.

Who is Marie-Madeleine?

The question asked is simple yet the answer is not very obvious. In the Gospels, three Marys are mentioned: Mary of Bethany sister of Martha and Lazarus who anoints the feet of Christ, the "myrrophore courtesan" who washes the feet of Jesus in Simon the Pharisee in the Gospel of Luke and Mary of Magdala, the first witness to the Resurrection. According to La Légende dorée and Provençal tradition, Marie, Marthe and Lazare would have arrived at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in a boat without a veil or oar. Marie evangelized Provence before retiring to the cave of Sainte-Baume. She would have lived 33 years and would have nourished only roots, quenched its thirst in the water of the sky and would have received the visit of the angels seven times a day. As her death approaches, she gets closer to Saint Maximin who gives her communion and places his body in a mausoleum in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. We could also add to this list Mary the Egyptian who is sometimes likened to Mary Magdalene. The latter is said to be a prostitute who lived between the 3rd and 5th centuries AD and who discovered a group of pilgrims leaving for Jerusalem and followed them. Arrived in front of the Basilica of the Resurrection in the holy city, the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, she could not enter the place. After begging the Virgin, she was able to enter. A way tells her that she must go into the desert beyond the Jordan. She lived alone as a hermit for 47 years and had to refuse the devil's proposals and the many temptations.

The rise of medieval Magdalenian worship

After its beginnings in the 9th century, Marie Madeleine became an important figure in Western Christianity during the second half of the Middle Ages. Around ten relics and more than ninety Magdalenian sanctuaries were counted during this period.

From the end of the 11th century, under the abbey of Geoffroy, Vézelay became an important place of Magdalenian worship. This independent abbey becomes a high place of pilgrimage in the West, arousing the envy of the Count of Nevers and the Bishop of Autun. This worship is based on the presence of relics of the saint. The body would have been moved to Vézelay by the monk Badilon following the destruction of Aix by the Saracens. This account helps to justify the possession of the relics. Protected by the papacy, it became a prosperous Cluniac abbey, place of worship and pilgrimage for the relics of Mary Magdalene. The 12th and the beginning of the 13th century are a period of apogee for Vézelay. However, at the end of the century, because of the conflicts between the abbots of Cluny and the bishops but also the wars which ravaged the region, the number of people decreased.

Between 1261 and 1266, the Dominican Jacques de Voragine wrote The golden legend, a collection of the lives of the saints including Mary Magdalene. Using many sources such as Vézelian hagiographies, Jacques de Voragine unifies the different figures of Mary Magdalene and puts the Provençal episode of the Saint in the spotlight. This one and other contemporaries express doubts on the relics of Vézelay: the monk Badilon would have been mistaken and would have brought the remains of another body. Despite the authentication of these relics in 1267 by King Louis IX, disputes remain and the decline of the pilgrimage continues. Charles II, son of the Count of Provence Charles I started research in 1279 in Saint Maximin and “found” relics in a white marble sarcophagus and in particular a skull with a mark that would have been left by Christ during the Noli me Tangere (do not touch me). This discovery is widely relayed by the Dominican Bernard Gui: the relics of Vézelay would therefore be false. The Provençal relics were authenticated in 1295 by Pope Boniface VIII, who gave the Dominicans those of Saint-Jean-de-Latran. The latter are established in a new convent to which is added a basilica in Saint-Maximin. Jean Gobi, prior of the convent from 1304 to 1328, is a major player in the development of the site, particularly in the dissemination of stories about the Saint. The arrival of the Papacy in Avignon gives an international dimension to the pilgrimage.

At the end of the 13th century, the Burgundian cult of the Saint was promoted and taken over by the Dukes of Burgundy following Abbot Geoffroi de Vézelay in a princely logic. A significant competition is set up between the Valois and the counts of Provence.

The Saint is also a means for certain women of the aristocracy to be portrayed with their most beautiful assets, such as Marguerite of York (1468-1477) or Marie of Burgundy. Margaret of Austria by founding the royal monastery of Brou chooses the saint as patroness.

She is a model of repentance but also a female model for the Church. Indeed, she is a more accessible figure of holiness than that of the Virgin Mary but also recalls Eve the sinner. In many representations throughout the Middle Ages and modern times, Mary Magdalene is represented in a garden reminiscent of original sin even with a snake. Many women were inspired by it as early as the 13th century, as shown by Susan Haskins. We can cite the founding of the College of Girls of Paris of the Order of Saint Mary Magdalene at the end of the 15th century. She is honored during major and minor holidays and in particular on July 22. Many parishes, places of worship or hospitals (in particular in Burgundy) are under his patronage.

Marie-Madeleine, key figure of baroque painting

The figure of Mary Magdalene is among the most popular themes of the modern Catholic era. With the Counter-Reformation (16th century), we are witnessing a return of images. That of Mary Magdalene is very popular, because she is a “model par excellence of exemplary confession, of perfect penance” 1. This exaltation of penance is inseparable from the controversy against Protestantism: the Protestant does not go to confession unlike the Catholic. It therefore corresponds to the Church's will to reaffirm the importance of the sacrament of penance, of confession and thus the return to true faith. This is not a radical novelty: from the 11th century, the figure of the saint was used by the prelates to reform the clergy. The many Marie-Madeleine, like those of de La Tour, are emblematic of the theological and artistic renewal of the Baroque. The presence of a skull in the painting refers to the Spiritual Recommendations of Jesuit Ignatius of Loyola, as it allows meditation in the darkness of death. The light of the paintings is a reminder of that of Christ. These representations are compared to vanities, Protestant still lifes, due to the characteristic presence of certain objects (the Cross, the Bible and the skull in particular). Luca Giordano's paintingSainte-Madeleine renouncing the Vanities of the world kept at the Dunkirk museum also illustrates this well. Mary Magdalene is with Saint Jerome a major Catholic theme of vanities with human figure, "a typical image of the abandonment of the world and of penance" supported by the Counter-Reformation in opposition to the vanities.

However, Marie-Madeleine also allows artists to represent the beauty of women, their charm, their sensuality: Eugenio d'Ors has clearly shown the ambiguity of this "woman already repentant in sin, still lascivious in repentance" 2 . She is nicknamed the Christian Venus. But artists were still forbidden to represent her in a situation where the saint would indulge in sin. It could be represented partly naked (except in Poland) as a symbol of poverty. Ecstasy was also a theme approached by painters like Titian, Guido Reni or Cavarage. Guido Cagnacci's painting, Maddalena svenuta (1663) clearly shows the ambiguity between mystical ecstasy and physical love. We could also cite the Rapture of Mary Magdalene by Simon Vouet.

Marie-Madeleine, the beautiful penitent of the 19th century

After the French Revolution, the theme of "Holy women at the tomb of Christ" is one of the most important. Mary Magdalene in particular represents the return to faith after religious uncertainties. His humanity and his faith inspire many people and in particular artists. The Saint allows to show a more sensitive faith in times of doubts. The mystical idea takes off. After the French Revolution and its destruction, we must rebuild supports of piety. According to Bruno Foucart, a real “golden age of religious painting” is beginning: “Nearly four thousand religious paintings” are “presented at the Salons from 1800 to 1860”. Artists dare new ways of representing these subjects. Victor Orsel is a very religious artist who profoundly renews religious art in the 19th century. His painting Madeleine (1835) is a major example of this renewal through the richness of its references and its dogmatic and didactic will according to Colette Melnotte (p. 228). La Madeleine at the foot of the cross by Ary Scheffer offers us a particularly moving scene of the Saint's love for Christ. Foreign artists are not left out: Nazarene artists in Germany or the Pre-Raphaelites in England offer a new perspective on Mary Magdalene. The Madeleine Church in Paris is also an important site for the iconography of the Saint in the 19th century. Protestantism is no stranger to this movement. Religious art is therefore experiencing a major renaissance, as is the cult of Mary Magdalene, which until 1860 was a symbol of redemption. This artistic and religious tradition should not mask another trend which is taking its more artistic and aesthetic development paying homage to the beauty of the Saint.

[From the end of the 18th century with the sculpture by Canova Maddalena penitent but above all Francesco Hayez with his painting Santa Maria Maddalena penitente nel deserto, the saint undresses and becomes a source of inspiration for many artists, especially French artists. At the Salon of 1859, Paul Baudry caused a scandal with his Penitent Magdalene : the saint becomes associated with the world of courtesans. In the second half of the 19th century, Jean-Jacques Henner but also Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, deals with the biblical figure. It is a more original and less pious approach that Jules Lefebvre undertakes in his painting exhibited at the Salon of 1876: nothing makes it possible to distinguish the saint from a profane figure. For some critics, the Madeleine is no more than a "delicious study of a beautiful model" (Véron, 1876) bordering on the erotic for Théophile Gauthier. It is difficult to differentiate a saint, an ancient goddess, an allegory. This phenomenon is perceptible in sculpture (Emmanuel Dolivet, Augustin Peène). According to Maxime du Camp, Baudry “takes a model, [...] he undresses him, sits him on the edge of a well, and that's Fortune; he sets him up, seen from the front, in a wood, it is Leda; he places it from behind, it is Venus; he layers it and partially wraps it in blue drapery, and it's Madeleine ”. At the end of the century, the eroticism of the representations of the saint was evident and hardly escaped art lovers. However, it should not be seen as a real rupture but a contemporary reinvention inscribed in the continuity of Correggio which represents her as a prostitute, going beyond certain conveniences and limits. The 19th century is thus the century of the rereading or even the liberation of Marie-Madeleine.

Marie Madeleine is a very unique saint in the West. A woman of questionable but repentant customs, she is a figure of humanity in the midst of saints whose lives and actions are often inaccessible to the image of the Virgin Mary. It is also a monument of beauty highlighted by artists throughout history. From the Middle Ages to the beginning of the contemporary period, it is a major artistic and religious theme. The 19th century can be understood as the culmination of various artistic or religious traditions and interpretations. If certain excesses were denounced, the end of the century heralded a revival of religious art which broke with traditional canons: The meal at Simon the Pharisee by Jean Béraud in 1891 presents Christ represented in a conventional manner, Marie-Madeleine in half. - notorious worldly (Liane de Pougy) surrounded by contemporary political or literary personalities. This “masquerade” denounced by Louis de Lutèce is an update as there has been in the past, a more social, political and critical vision of a religious theme treated many times before.


- M.-P. Botte, M. Briat-Philippe, P.-G. Girault and I. Renaud-Chamska, Marie-Madeleine, la Passion revealed, Saint-Étienne, IAC Éditions d'Art, 2016.

- Duperray, Ève, ed., Marie Madeleine in mysticism, the arts and letters. Proceedings of the international colloquium, Avignon, July 20-21-22, 1988, Paris, Beauchesne, 1989, 359 p.

- Eugenio d'Ors, Baroque, Paris, Gallimard, 1935.

- Line Amselem "Marie Madeleine, saint and sinner or various iconographic aspects of otherness" in The representations of the other in the Iberian and Ibero-American space, II, edited by Augustin Redondon, pp. 61-74.

- Alain Montandon, Marie-Madeleine: mythical figure in literature and the arts, Presses Univ Blaise Pascal, 1999.

- Alain Tapié, Vanities in 17th century painting, Paris, Petit-Palais Museum, 1990-1991.

- Anne Larue. "Madeleine and Melancholy". Marie-Madeleine mythical figure in literature and the arts, Les Cahiers du CRLMC, 1999, University of Clermont-Ferrand, p. 129-141.

- Bernard Ceysson, François Ceysson, Loïc Bénétière, Marie-Paule Botte, Magali Briat-Philippe, Marie-Noëlle Maynard (dir.), Mary Magdalene the Passion revealed, IAC Éditions d'Art, 2016.

- Marie Madeleine from religion to art. Religions & History n ° 53 - November / December 2013

- Bruno Foucart, "The golden age of religious painting", Debate, 1981/3 (n ° 10), p. 29-47.

- Raphaëlle Taccone, "Marie Madeleine in the West: the dynamics of holiness in Burgundy in the 9th-15th centuries", Bulletin of the Medieval Studies Center of Auxerre, 17.1, 2013

Video: Basilique de Sainte Marie Madeleine Saint Maximin La Sainte Baume (January 2022).