July 22nd is the feast day of Mary Magdalene. But who is she, and how to recognize her in art? If there had been more gender equality in the days of Jesus, than Mary Magdalene certainly would have become one of the 12 Apostles. She was the number one female follower of Jesus and is generally considered a historical figure. Most likely Mary Magdalene was wealthy, mundane, intellectual and beautiful. Rumors say that Mary Magdalene was a penitent prostitute and the lover of Jesus, that she was washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying His feet with her hair and rubbing His feet with precious ointment. These are fantasy stories made up from the Middle Ages onwards. But it’s through these stories that we can identify Mary Magdalene in art: as a beautiful long-haired woman with a perfume or ointment jar, or as a penitent sinner.
Mary Magdalene depicted as a prostitute or sinful woman, whose sins are forgiven by Jesus, was a popular image. As everyone has some sins, big or small, one would love to see a painting with a sinner whose sins are forgiven and who sees the light of salvation. So let’s now look at this painting by El Greco. It’s the ecstatic moment when the penitent Mary Magdalene converts to the heavenly light and the skull representing her earthly mortality is rolling out of her hand. And of course in the left bottom comer is the omnipresent ointment jar.
Another story is about Mary Magdalene wiping and anointing Jesus’ feet with precious perfume or ointment. Or washing His feet with her own tears and drying with her long hair. That’s pretty dramatic and will certainly appeal to any sinner who is looking for forgiveness.
As a historical figure, Mary Magdalene most likely was present when Jesus was crucified. See hereunder the crucifixion triptych by Rogier van der Weyden. And just so that we do not mix up Mary Magdalene with anyone else, she is the person carrying the jar with the perfume or ointment. The jar is Mary Magdalene’s traditional attribute and a great trademark to recognize her in art.
What is Pentecost and how is it depicted in art? Pentecost (UK: Whitsunday; NL: Pinksteren) is a Christian holy day, that must be seen in connection with Easter and the Ascension of Christ. It’s celebrated 50 days after Easter Sunday, and 10 days after Ascension Day. The word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek word “Πεντηκοστή” and simply means “fiftieth”. What happened is the following: Easter is the moment of the crucifixion and resurrection; at Ascension Day the physical body of Christ goes up to heaven and with Pentecost the spirit of Christ comes back to earth in the form of the Holy Ghost. And the Holy Ghosts descend upon the Apostles, the disciples of Christ, so that they can start spreading His word around the world.
This can be depicted with great drama. Look at El Greco’s painting from c. 1600. The Apostles and Maria are being covered by light and flames coming down from above, and the Holy Ghost is descending in its classic form of a white dove. Their hands up in wonder, and their faces with big glorious admiration. Drama galore! Small mundane detail: the second apostle from the right in the top row has been given the portrait of El Greco himself, and he is the only one looking at us viewers.
If I may demystify this moment a bit, than let’s look at the fresco by Giotto from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, painted roughly 300 years before the El Greco painting. It’s the Apostles, sitting together in a meeting session. It’s a few weeks after the moment Christ left them, and can it be that they are going from a mourning phase into a phase of accepting what happened? They are discussing how to move forward and they are deciding to spread the good word of Christ around the world. They seem to have received a sparkle of hope; they are seeing now light in darkness. Giotto depicted this moment as rays of light (or fire) coming from above and spreading over the Apostles. Compare this to the El Greco painting where this abstract concept of seeing light in darkness has been turned into a visual concrete drama with rays of light, the dove and flames descending upon the Apostles.
to put Ascension and Pentecost next to each other, please look at these 17th
Century Dutch prints: Ascension as the physical movement of Christ up to heaven
and Pentecost as the spiritual movement of the Holy Ghost down from heaven.
Who is Saint Luke and how to recognize him in art? Luke is one of the Four Evangelists and the author of the Gospel of Luke, one of the New Testament books that describe the life of Christ. Luke is definitely a historic figure, who lived in the 1st Century and originally came from the then Greek city of Antioch, now on the Turkish-Syrian border. He was an physician, painter and writer and died at the age of 84. As he is one of the Four Evangelists, he became pretty popular and important in Western art. Luke was also a physician, and thus his name is used for many Saint Luke Hospitals all over the world.
In the 8th Century a story popped up telling that Luke once painted a portrait of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child. Most likely just a cute legend, but it helps with recognizing Luke in art. He is shown as a painter at work, and his model is the Virgin. This also made Luke become the patron saint of painters. He gave his name to the Guilds of Saint Luke, which were the trade unions for painters in the 16th and 17th Century. Here is a 1652 painting by Guercino. Saint Luke shows the viewer his painting with the Virgin and Child. And look what’s on the table behind him. It’s a book. That refers to the Gospel he wrote. And on the book is an inkstand in the form of an ox. And the ox is the very most common attribute to recognize Saint Luke the Evangelist. The other three Evangelists also have their own symbols: Matthew – angel; Marcus – lion; John – eagle.
Here is another painting, from c. 1603, by El Greco (“The Greek”). His real name is Doménikos Theotokópoulos, a Greek painter but mainly living and working in Toledo in Spain. El Greco painted this magnificent portrait of Saint Luke for the Toledo Cathedral where it still can be seen. He must have felt close to Saint Luke, as they both came from Greece. Saint Luke shows us the Gospel, and his painting of the Virgin and Child is now incorporated in the Gospel book itself.
Most common is to depict Luke as a writer, together with an ox or a bull, which animal became Luke’s trademark symbol. The ox or bull, as an animal often used for offers, refers to Christ’s sacrifice and crucifixion. Here are a few Dutch Old Master prints from series with the Four Evangelists. The person writing, depicted together with an ox, can only be Saint Luke the Evangelist. Once you make the link between Luke and the ox, it will be super easy to recognize this saint.