penitent similarly displayed an often lascivious male appreciation of her figure. Further, these images seemed to stress not Mary the privileged disciple but the prostituted woman that she has been identified with. Indeed, in these images, there was too much of an obsession with the fallen woman, without any appreciation for her redemption through Christ.
Of these many representations of Mary Magdalene as the penitent, there was one image that kept suggesting itself insistently. This was a Baroque period statute of the penitent Mary carved by the seventeenth century Spanish artist Pedro de Mena. Belonging to the Spanish National Museum of Sculpture, currently housed in the Colegio de San Gregorio in Valladolid, I had the privilege of encountering the image when it was on loan to the National Museum of Antique Art in Lisbon between 2011 and 2012. There are no words that can quite capture the sublime beauty of this image, whether in the care given to the coarse garments of the penitent Mary, or the bliss of contemplation that animates her face. Unfortunately, however, none of the images on the internet were quite able to do justice to this image. In any case, as I will subsequently elaborate, this moment of penitence was not the moment I decided on. Also, there is good reason to believe that the penitent Mary is the result of the conflation of Mary Madgalene with that of St. Mary of Egypt. This image, therefore, just would not do.
I eventually settled on the moment when Mary encounters Christ after his resurrection. This choice was determined largely because of the immense importance of this moment, captured perfectly in the words of Sr. Sandra Schneiders:
“as three of the four Gospels record, she was indeed the first witness to the Resurrection, and so then for those fateful moments, hours immediately thereafter, there’s a deep sense in which Mary Magdala was the Church. She was the only person who knew the story and could proclaim it of the Resurrection.”
There are times when one is unable to understand the full import of the words one encounters. And yet one is aware that something monumental has taken place. An entire worldview has been shifted, and a new perspective has been born. In these few words, Schneiders managed to convey the central importance of this female figure in a world that predominantly focuses on male and patriarchal actors. She repositioned Mary Magdalene, not as a fallen figure of immorality, nor as a penitent (whose value I am not disputing, though penitence can be overemphasized so as to occlude grace), but as a person who, as a result of Christ’s certain choice, was privileged to be the first to be made aware of the key moment of the Christian message and, in conveying the message of new life to the rest of the disciples, she embodied the Church in those initial moments.
(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 24 July 2015)