Caravaggio’s Martha and Mary Magdalene

July 17th 2021

Martha and Mary Magdalene, c.1598, Caravaggio, Detroit Institute of Art

In Western art, Mary Magdalen has been conflated with Mary, the sister of Martha, and with the woman who washed Christ’s feet with her tears.  She is often shown as a repentant sinner , sometimes clad in scarlet, sometimes nude, and often located in the wilderness, following the tradition that she became a hermit engaged in prayer and penance in the South of France.  This painting by Caravaggio takes Mary Magdalene to be Martha’s sister, but he adopts a different approach to the subject.   This painting is also known as the “Conversion of the Magdalene”.  The two women are engaged in conversation.  The convex mirror, the broken comb and the cosmetic dish  with a sponge, place them in Mary’s private room.  These objects speak of feminine beauty and so the viewer may surmise that their conversation is about the transitory nature of physical beauty.  On the left, Martha’s  hands suggest that she is listing a number of points as if urging conversion.   On the right, the convex mirror is usually taken as a symbol of vanity, but it also served as a symbol of prudence borne of self-knowledge.  Caravaggio’s use of the mirror draws on a well -established symbolism about vanity and about contemplation, but he is the first to apply it to the Magdalene.  It is significant, that Mary does not look in the mirror, rather it is we who do.  In it we see the source of the light which shows us that this the moment of her conversion.   It falls on Martha’s gesturing hands, and on Mary’s hand, which holds the delicate orange blossom to symbolise purity, and the other one, which rests on the mirror’s surface.  This use of light is reminiscent of the artist’s “Conversion of St Paul” and his “Call of Matthew”.   Mary is dressed in contemporary clothes.  The model has been identified as Fillede Melandroni.   He used the same model in his “St Catherine of Alexandria”,  in which she wears the same dress.  Andrew Graham-Dixon points out that in both works her ring finger is distorted,  as if she had been injured.  Caravaggio does not correct her hand’s defect.  He painted what he saw, drawing the story of the saint’s conversion into contemporary life.  But in doing so, is he giving us a further lesson about shunning the vanity of physical perfection, or is he himself acting out of his own vanity as a painter?

Caravaggio’s Martha and Mary Magdalene

Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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