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Art and Images in Psychiatry
Dec 2012

El Greco's The Penitent Magdalene

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012;69(12):1194. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2012.111

Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Saviour loved you more than all other women. Tell us the words of the Saviour you remember, the things which you know that we don't because we haven't heard them.”–Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary Magdala1(p14)

Mary Magdalene provides a lens to view the role of the feminine in religion and culture over the centuries. She has been variously portrayed as a wealthy benefactress to Jesus and his followers, as a prostitute, as an apostle, as an ascetic, as a contemplative, and as Jesus' companion. In these various roles, she is viewed as an individual, and her individuality allows an exploration of the feminine in Christianity. Her life is reflected not only in the New Testament descriptions of her but also in the Gnostic Book of Mary1 and the Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt.2 In the New Testament Gospels, she is identified as the privileged person who found the empty tomb and to whom the resurrected Christ first appeared. Earlier in the Christian Bible, she is described as among the wealthy women who provided material support for Jesus' teaching. In the Book of Mary,1 she is said to be the most beloved among the disciples and is described there as the female apostle. In the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Gospels,2 she is referred to as a leader who went forth along with the other disciples in the Book of Thomas and as companion to Jesus in the Book of Philip.

The tradition in the Western Church that Mary Magdalene was a repentant prostitute is no longer supported by the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council. This designation began with Pope Gregory the Great, who preached a sermon in AD 591 proposing that the biblical descriptions of 3 women in the New Testament all referred to Mary Magdalene, thus making her a synthesis of these 3 distinct women. This Pope identified her not only as the woman who witnessed the crucifixion (and to whom Jesus appeared after the resurrection in Christian belief) but also as the sinful woman (ie, prostitute) who anointed Jesus' feet and washed them with her tears and as Mary the sister of Lazarus and Martha in Bethany.3 The Eastern Church always has viewed these 3 women as distinct and does not have a tradition of the Penitent Magdalene. However, in Western art, particularly during the Counter-Reformation Church era, Mary Magdalene was venerated as a repentant sinner and a penitent prostitute and was often depicted as a hermit leading an ascetic life.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614), known as El Greco, was one of the greatest of visionary artists of the Spanish Renaissance. The Penitent Magdalene (cover and thumbnail) is shown disheveled, her hair falling over her shoulders and covered with a fine lace veil.4 Her head is raised, with her eyes fixed upward. The reddening of her eyes and her facial expression suggest her adoration of the Saviour (and to El Greco's contemporaries also her contrition for sin). The viewer is moved to compassion by this elegant spiritual image of her. The saint is shown before an outcrop of stone covered by ivy branches and leaves. There is an alabaster jar filled with the unguent essences used to anoint Jesus' feet. The presence of a skull refers to her life as a hermit meditating on the transience of human existence.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos (known as El Greco; 1541-1614), Greek. The Penitent Magdalene, 1580-1585. Oil on canvas, 101.6 × 81.9 cm (40 × 32¼ in). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust. Photo: Jamison Miller

Translations of the Gnostic Gospels and the Gospel of Mary have alerted readers to the importance of Mary Magdalene and of other women in the early centuries of the Christian Church. The psychiatrist Carl Jung played a pivotal role in our understanding the psychological significance of the Gnostic Gospels. In 1912, he enthusiastically wrote to Sigmund Freud about them. Rather than a philosophy or heresy, he viewed Gnosticism as a mythological expression of inner experience akin to the poetic and mythological language expressed in the individuation process he described. Gnostics, like psychologists, sought a transformation of the mind. Jung was instrumental in calling attention to the greatest storehouse of original Gnostic writings ever discovered (the Nag Hammadi Library, discovered in 1945) and encouraged its publication and translation. He was rewarded by the naming of the first of these codices the Jung Codex,5 which was presented to him on his 80th birthday. Among the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Gospels are those of Thomas and Philip, both of which shed new light on Mary Magdalene, reinforcing the earlier depiction of her in the Gospel of Mary.

Jung's psychology is pertinent to understanding the importance of Mary Magdalene and her role in attitudes toward the feminine. Mary Magdalene was not an archetypal figure like the Virgin Mary. Instead, she is always depicted as an often struggling individual. Jung expressed concern about the consequences for women in general because of the collective worship of the Virgin Mary as an archetypal and divine figure. He proposed that the value of the individual woman was diminished when her individuality and expressiveness were replaced by a collective belief in an archetypal ideal. He proposed that collective worship of an archetypal ideal resulted in the loss of “a value to which human beings had a natural right [that] could find its natural expression only through individual choice.” Thus, in the Middle Ages, “the devaluation of the real woman was compensated by daemonic features. She no longer appeared as an object of love, but as a persecutor or witch. The consequence of increasing Mariolatry was the witch hunt, that indelible blot on the later Middle Ages.”6(p235,236)

Thus, for Jung, women who were persecuted often were those who expressed originality and individualism. Mary Magdalene, through centuries of scrutiny, is now emerging as a figure to emulate as an individual fully engaged in her life, the traditionally unrecognized apostle who can be a role model in modern times.

King KL. The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Salem, OR: Polebridge Press; 2003
Pagels E. The Gnostic Gospels. New York, NY: Vintage Books; 1989
Haskins S. Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor. New York, NY: Riverhead Books; 1993
Davies D. El Greco. London, England: National Gallery Co Limited; 2003
Cross FL. The Jung Codex. London, England: A.R. Mowbray & Co; 1955
Jung CG. Psychological Types. Vol 6. Hull RFC, trans. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Unversity Press; 1971