The First Apostle’s Unlikely Witness

Mary Magdalene was a recipient of grace with a story to proclaim.

Save for Jesus Christ and his mother Mary, few biblical figures hold more prominence in the history of Christian art than Mary Magdalene. Paintings and sculptures favor depicting these two Marys not just because they appear frequently in the New Testament but because they play such pivotal roles in the life of Jesus.

Of course, Mary of Nazareth’s identity is uncontested. She is the young betrothed woman who conceived Jesus, God’s Son, and was present with her Son and his followers at various times throughout his earthly ministry, enduring to the end and beyond, when the Holy Spirit compelled the faithful to spread the news of his salvation.

However, the identity of Mary Magdalene has not been so clear. When we track her visual depictions across time, a richly complex and intriguing story emerges that ultimately raises a central question: Who was Mary Magdalene?

When Christian art directs our attention to this Mary, we quickly realize that there is no straight answer. As Diane Apostolos-Cappadona’s latest visual history reveals, Mary Magdalene has been many things to the church worldwide throughout the ages.

In fact, the 2002 exhibit “In Search of Mary Magdalene,” curated by Apostolos-Cappadona, featured over 80 works of art and objects depicting Mary Magdalene. Repeated patterns within art history associate her with long hair, an anointing jar, and nudity. She is depicted as the epitome of a penitent sinner and reformed prostitute, renowned for her fervent love of Christ and humility before him. She is recognized for her place at the cross and at the tomb in the garden; she is also remembered for her courageous missionary journeys as an evangelist and preacher.

Mary Magdalene’s portrayal gives …

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