The Penitent Magdalene

Happy Ash Wednesday!

Today marks the day in which many Christians go to church and receive ashes on their heads, as a mark of penitence. As the ashes are placed on the forehead, the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is a reminder that we must die and so we must prepare for our death through repentance and turning to Jesus Christ.

And so, for today, I’d like to feature this artwork:

Penitent Magdalene, by Domenico Tintoretto, c. 1598-1602. Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy. Via
Penitent Magdalene, by Domenico Tintoretto, c. 1598-1602. Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy.

It it a picture of the Penitent Magdalene, or St. Mary Magdalene of gospel fame!

In the gospels, she was a close friend of Jesus in a lot of different ways. Jesus exorcised seven demons from her, visited and taught at her family’s house, raised her brother from the dead, and was at the foot of the cross when He died. She was also one of the first ones to realize that the tomb was empty and one of the first people that Jesus appeared to after His glorious Resurrection. So important is her role in the gospels that she is known as the Apostle of the Apostles!

Well! In addition to her life, which we know from the gospels, there are also many legends about her. Namely, that she was a former prostitute who repented and transformed her life, thanks to Jesus Christ, choosing to follow Jesus in a life of penitence. Some say that she is the woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and anointed Him with fancy oils, for instance.

Do we know that these legends are true? Well… no. That is, we know without a doubt that she did indeed transform her life, thanks to Jesus! That is in the gospels! But we don’t know whether she was a former prostitute or whether she was the sinful woman in the gospels.

Still, that didn’t stop the imaginations of many from depicting her in this manner!

This artwork that I’ve chosen is pretty typical of the Penitent Magdalene artworks, of which there are many.

In this picture, she is wearing some revealing clothes that indicate her former way of life.

A jar is beside her as both a symbolism of the jar of oil that she supposedly anointed the feet of Jesus with, as well as the fact that she was one of the women who went to anoint the body of Jesus after His death.

Beside her is a crucifix, to remind her of the brutal death of Jesus that she was witness to, and to further remind her that this was the price that was paid to save her from her sins.

Also nearby is a skull, reminding her that she will die as well and thus she ought to continually repent and follow the Lord. And thus, she has a book opened, which is probably a book representing the Bible. While the Bible didn’t actually exist in her time, as it was compiled almost a century after, it was used as a symbolism to reflect on the words that Christ said.

The setting is also pretty interesting — she is up late at night, which is a sort of mortification of the body in itself and a kind of nod to the many religious orders that wake up in the middle of the night to say prayers. There is no candle burning, but she is illuminated by the light of God, which pours down on her, and which she is turned toward while praying fervently.

So… what was this point of this particular devotion? Simple! It was to remind us that no matter how wretched and sinful we are — and rumor has it that St. Mary Magdalene lived a pretty wretched and sinful life before she met Jesus — that there is always a chance of redemption. Yes, we may have sinned before in some pretty terrible ways, but there is always plenty of hope, as long as we repent from our sins and turn toward the Lord in earnest.

And so! I pray that all of you have a beautiful journey this Lent!

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of four, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer.

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