Central to the traditional practice of Catholicism, and indeed a major function of the Catholic Church itself, is the role of repentance and absolution. Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Magdala and sometimes the Magdalene, particularly embodies these Christian two Christian dogmas. She is said to have travelled with Jesus as one of his followers and to have witnessed Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. During the Middle Ages, Mary Magdalene was regarded in Western Christianity as a repentant prostitute or loose woman. These traits are not directly attested in any of the four canonical gospels and are rather a matter of tradition.
The typical portrayals of Mary Magdalene fit into two classifications of visual iconography: that of the beautiful Magdalene, living devotee of Christ; and that of the sorrowful repentant ascetic. Typically, Mary Magdalene is represented as being a “beautiful sinner” when shown during the lifetime of Christ, or as not yet fully repented but gradually more “righteous” and saintly until finally her sorrow and grief matures into a repentant rapture after witnessing the resurrection. After Christ’s ascension to heaven, Mary Magdalene is shown torn with grief and living the life of a cloistered penitent ascetic. There are definite instances where a haggard and bereaved Magdalene is shown in the scenes of the living Christ, and instances of the beautiful post-ascension repentant Magdalene, although the former is much more common until the late medieval period. The phenomena of the beautiful, and even seductive, yet penitent Magdalene became the standard in Renaissance depictions of her, where she began to be seen more as beautiful Redeemed Penitent Saint Mary.
Mary Magdalene is represented here with her most common saintly attribute which is the ointment jar, holding a swathe of drapery which flies around her, falling on her left shoulder.
The bracelet of pearls around her left wrist, the flowing sinuous movement and sensual quality of the piece recall the works of Antwerp trained Ambrosius Gallé (1713/14-1755), echoing the Juno at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
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