November 2nd 2019

“The Penitent Magdalene with Two Angels”, Guercino, c. 1622, Pinacoteca Vaticana.  In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb early and alone  on the first day of the week and finds it empty (Jn 20:1).  Yet the two angels correspond to  Luke’s two men in dazzling apparel (Lk 24:4).   As has long been the fate of St Mary Magdalene in human telling,  the known facts are conflated, embellished and the unknown taken for gospel truth.   Guercino  focuses our attention on Mary.   She is young and beautiful.  However, she does look rather déshabillé,  as if she had got out of bed in haste, and wrapping a cloak around herself, made her way to the tomb.  This is not the only treatment of the penitent Magdalene by  Guercino and, the truth be told,  in those other works she is rather more déshabillé.  These proved very popular and were copied many times.  Here an angel holds the nail used to crucify Christ before her gaze.  Nearby the crown of thorns rests upon the discarded shroud (Jn 20:5).   The other angel with a bright outstretched wing directs our eyes, and not Mary’s, heavenward. This was a new way of representing the Magdalene. She is not the penitent in the wilderness of popular legend, nor is she the woman who anoints the feet of Jesus in the house of Simon the leper as in Mark 14:3.  Nor is she as yet the witness to the resurrection, for which we Dominican friars adopted her as our patroness.  Finding the tomb empty, she contemplates Christ’s suffering on the cross.  Guercino painted this altarpiece for the high altar of the Roman Church of Santa Maria Maddalena delle Convertitie.  It no longer exists. The street where it once stood is Via delle Convertite, which runs between Piazza San Silvestro and the Via del Corso.   The church and monastery of the Convertite stood at the bottom corner of the triangle formed by Via del Corso on the East, the Tiber with the busy port of Ripetta to the West, and Piazza del Popolo to the north.  This area was called the Ortaccio, which means evil garden. It was a kind of anti-Eden where prostitution flourished.  The nuns of the Convertite were all former prostitutes, who had converted to a life of prayer and penance. Their patron saint was St Mary Magdalene because in popular legend she was cast as a repentant prostitute.  Here Mary is young and beautiful.  This was meant to underline the nature of her sin and the depth of Christ’s forgiveness.   It is a very male perspective.   In fact, it was men who were responsible for admitting these women to the monastery.  It was written that the all-male Arciconfraterita della Carità were not to admit women whom they judged to be  deformed or unattractive.  The nuns were to be ‘true’ penitents.   This also was the part of the city where Lombards tended to live.  Devotion to the recently canonised Milanese St Carlo Borromeo was very popular. In the century before, he had walked barefoot through the streets of a plague-stricken Milan, in  procession with the relic of the Holy Nail, which was believed to have held Christ’s feet to the cross.  And so in contemplating the Holy Nail, Mary Magdalene contemplates the wounded feet of Christ which she at her conversion, supposedly had anointed, kissed and wet with her tears.  That nuns of the Convertite were to identify with such a version of the saint but whether or not it worked is debatable.  Much of monastery’s income came from laundry which meant that these nuns were on the streets going back and forth to the fountains they washed other people’s clothes.  The infamous Magdalene laundries of the last century come to mind and the varying ways St Mary Magdalene has been pressed into service down the centuries. 


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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