“Mary Magdalene”, Caravaggio, 1595/96, Gallerie, Doria Pamphilji, Rome. Were you not given the title you might have thought that this is a young woman who has returned in a bad mood from the local swish party! Her accessories lie on the floor as if they are no longer of any value to her. Mary Magdalene is identified by her vessel filled with ointment and by her long hair. This is one of the first of Caravaggio’s religious paintings. Caravaggio does not show Mary Magdalene as the beautiful woman doing penance in the wilderness and clad only in her long hair as she stares heavenward, or as a beautifully adorned sinner with a taste for luxury, as did other artists. He seats her on a low seat, almost as if she is kneeling on the ground. She looks as if she has been crying. You can see a tear running down her cheek. Evidently she has no where but the floor for her jewellery. This and the sparseness of the room suggest that despite her jewellery and the luxuriant fabric of her dress this woman is poor. Her hands are folded on her lap, but we can see that they are slightly red and swollen as if by day she were a laundress. All these details suggest that she is the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus, and who Luke says was a sinner (Lk 7:36-50). The conflation of that woman with Mary Magdalene was commonly accepted. What is extraordinary here is the contemporary realism with which Caravaggio depicts her, using, no doubt a young woman from the street life of Rome as his model. The woman from Luke had embraced the gospel message of repentance, and then, upon hearing that Jesus was to dine with Simon the Pharisee, she took a jar of ointment and went there and knelt on the floor to anoint his feet. Soon she will weep so much that she wets his feet with her tears and she will dry them with her long hair. What Caravaggio shows here is the very moment of repentance, before she goes to the Pharisee’s house. She has loosened her hair and removed her jewels and perhaps is praying for the courage to go to him and show him her deep devotion. This is the one of whom Jesus will say, “her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much (Lk 7:47) and then to her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Lk 7:50). Perhaps her swish party days are at an end!
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.