Let’s talk about Mary Magdalene.
In the Eastern Church, Mary Magdalene’s icon is nice and dignified-looking. She’s all decked out in red, holding an ointment jar or an egg, and she’s staring authoritatively forward as one does in an icon. In the West, Mary Magdalene is portrayed in any number of ways, but I most often see her crying– most often of all, crying at Jesus’s bare feet.
Many have pointed out that we don’t specifically know the sinful woman who washed Christs’s feet with her tears was Magdalene; all we know about Magdalene for sure is that the Lord exorcised her of seven demons. But that’s a topic for another day. Let’s presume, for the sake of argument, that they were the same person. Mary Magdalene’s most famous position in western art that I know of, when she is the center of a painting instead of one of the witnesses to the Crucifixion, is crying with her face smushed into a foot.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good place to be. I think that if any of us saw the gravity of our sins, we would die of shame; I think that we ought all to be crying tears of gratitude at Christ’s feet for forgiving us every day. But think about this portrayal for a moment, and then think about Jesus’s other close friends and companions while He was on this earth.
Our Lady never sinned, so leave her out of it for a moment. Saint Peter was Jesus’s best friend, right up until he made a fool of himself early on Good Friday morning: he denied the Lord three times. He cursed and swore that he did not know the Lord. This was betrayal nearly as bad as Judas Iscariot, and Peter was adamant in his betrayal. He had two solid opportunities to walk back his statement, but he doubled down. Then the cock crowed, and Peter repented. He wept. Peter wept in remorse and never denied the Lord again.
Sometimes it happens. But what’s the most common portrayal of Saint Peter, in Western devotional art? Standing contrapposto, vigorous and strong, carrying keys and a fish net? A man of action?
Why don’t we see him crying more often?
What about Saint Paul? He started out monstrously, holding the cloaks of the men who martyred Stephen. God finally got ahold of him by striking him blind, and Paul went on to do wonderful things for Christ. How do we see Paul, the self-professed “chief of sinners,” in Western church art? Repenting of his past? I’ve never seen such a thing. He’s usually getting knocked off a horse or standing opposite Peter, stern, powerful, clutching the sword that killed him.
Come to think of it, I can’t think of any male repentant sinner saint who is so often portrayed repenting. There might be one, but off the top of my head I can’t call him to mind.
Mary Magdalene was the one Christ chose to tell the apostles that He had risen from the dead. She’s the apostle to the apostles. And she’s famous for her tears. The word “Maudlin” meaning “unnecessarily weepy” comes down to us in history because Magdalene is always portrayed in tears. And tears are a fine thing; we ought never to be ashamed of our tears. But why is the woman who preached the Risen Christ to the apostles portrayed in tears while the men who received her message, doubtfully until Christ showed up to confirm it, are portrayed in action?
Does this say something about how we view female saints, perhaps?
Are men more often praised for what they do, and women for what they refrain from doing or repent of having done?
What does this say about us?
Maybe we need to think differently about things. Maybe “Petrine” should be a word for weeping as well. We should weep like Peter, repent like Paul and preach in the face of doubtful men like Magdalene. It’s what I aim to do, at any rate.
(Image via Wikimedia Commons)