Mary Magdalene is a saint often defined by her worst sin instead of her great virtue. In the Catholic art tradition, there are two dominant modes of depicting her. The first is as a gaunt, ascetic penitent. Donatello’s sculpture is a prime example. All he left her of her former beauty is her hair. The second iconographic tradition imagines her as a sensual Venus. The mid-16th century painting by Titian, Mary Magdalen in Penitence, is the one that recently caught my eye. I admit, it shocked me a bit when I first saw it. Here, it seems, is a typical male painter exploring a familiar, titillating theme, using the cover of a religious subject as an excuse to give free rein to the baser instincts of his viewing audience.
Here’s an oddity, though, Titian’s painting was commissioned by the (under-rated and amazing) poetess Vittoria Collona. Collona wanted the painting as an illustrative commentary on her sonnets about Magdalen. The sonnets themselves are a hidden gem. I couldn’t find much in the way of online archives of her work, either in Italian or translation. After a search, I did finally find them here, translated by Ellen Moody
“Gripped by Sadness and That Intense Longing.”
Gripped by sadness and that intense longing
which removes fear, this beautiful woman,
alone in the night, weak, humble, selfless
her only armor active soaring hope,
enters the tomb, cries, moans, and rocks, pays no
mind to angels, thinks nothing of herself,
trusting him wholly, she falls at His feet:
the heart which aches with love can know no fear.
The men chosen for this state of mind, this
grace, felt his presence like he were some ghost,
a fearful passing shadow to shut out.
And thus if we cannot infer falsehood
from truth, it is right to respect women for
an awakened, exalted, constant heart.
As you can see, it’s beautiful and highly sensitive to the particular feminine qualities embodied in the spirituality of Mary Magdalen.
How is that such a pious woman would have commissioned an erotic work such as Titian’s?
There’s more going on in the painting than we might suspect. It isn’t a male fantasy thinly veiled under the guise of religion. To assume so would be to fall prey to a common misconception on the nature of eroticism and Catholicism, which is born of a puritanical prejudice against sexuality and a misunderstanding of the nature of desire and eros as expressions of divine love. This is the misunderstanding behind the impulse to paint fig leaves over genitalia, when in fact piety and eros complement each other.
Catholicism is quite comfortable with love in all its forms, including eroticism. Not that it’s a libertine philosophy obsessed with physically degrading explorations of human sexuality. Quite the opposite. It’s a strong philosophy of the relationship between body and soul. Human desire, rightly channeled, is a positive spiritual good, an icon of divine desire. The love of God for his Church is that of lover and beloved. Benedict XVI deals with this question at length in Deus Caritas Est, writing,
Christian faith, on the other hand, has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility. True, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.
He goes on to explain the way in which love both, “ascends,” and, “descends.” Eros is the love that reaches out in desire. Agape is the love that is received with humility. The two complete each other, the one leading to the other in a virtuous circle.
Knowing this, we see how natural it is for erotic desire for the Beloved to be deeply embedded in the Catholic artistic tradition. Titian is making a profound theological statement in his depiction of the Magdalen, one that Colonna, with the practiced eye of a poet, sees and appreciates.
First, notice the title. This painting is about penitence! Notice how the saint opens her heart to heaven. She holds nothing back. All her desire, all her spiritual fervor, the innermost longing of her Being is laid bare and made vulnerable to God. She seeks a spiritual consummation, to transform her erotic desire into a higher form of love through union with the divine. Everything else will be burned away – her past, her sins, her earthly attachments. Penitence is not opposed to human flourishing. Rather, it makes a person beautiful. Elizabeth Lev observes in her book How Catholic Art Saved the Faith that Magdalen, “Became a poster child for an interior cosmology.”
Lev goes on to make the point that Magdalen was often depicted as a sensuous figure by post-reformation artists as a theological argument for the efficacy of the sacrament of penance. She writes, “[Her] evident beauty and attraction were no longer directed toward the things of this world but were employed to inspire the faithful to the wonders of Heaven….the Magdalene was beautiful, but had dedicated her beauty to the service of God.”
The painting really is wonderful, which is why Collona loved it so. It complements her poetry in a most wonderful way. Meditate on these lines from, “Blest Lady In Whose Face Shines With the Light.”
She lay down at His feet,
His strong hand drew her up–the true lover
who simply accepts her heart welcomes her
The Rev. Michael Rennier is on the editorial board of Dappled Things. He is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord parish in St. Louis, MO and regularly posts his homilies here.