Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen
Oil on canvas
Lent by the St. Louis Art Museum, gift of Edward Mallinckrodt (138:1922)
Mary Magdalene is one of the most studied and controversial of the female Christian saints. Though nowhere identified as such in the New Testament, she has long been labeled a prostitute. The Vatican officially changed its view of her only in 1969.
In recent thought, she has been called one of the most important apostles, perhaps even a wealthy, independent patron who financed Jesus’s ministry. Little is known of her in reality, however. The town of Magdala is not securely identified, and Mary’s appearance in the life of Jesus is sudden. Luke (8.2) implies she was either a sinner or otherwise afflicted, having had seven demons cast from her. Scholars continue to argue about her role among the apostles and the nature of her relationship with Jesus. The gospel of Philip elevates her to great status, though that book is labeled apocryphal by the Catholic Church.
In art, the tradition of Mary Magdalene as a repentant sinner was common. In this “saint’s portrait,” she is shown calmly holding the ointment pot used to wash Jesus’s feet. The rich ornamentation of the canvas is a Netherlandish predilection, but may also refer to Mary as the ultimate penitent against vanity and excess.
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"I still remember the feeling of awe and disbelief when I was alone and walked in the room with those casts." --Ruth Tofle, chair of architecture, winner of the 2013 distinguished faculty award from the MU Alumni Association