This past spring semester at University of Nebraska, Lincoln I was enrolled in Religion 340, Women in the Biblical World. The class focused on the role/status of women as depicted in the Hebrew Bible & the New Testament. We critically analyzed undervalued women who are briefly mentioned in the Bible by taking different approaches to studying the text. All semester long, we worked on one project; you were to pick one of the female figures from the Bible, research her, find an artistic work relating to her, and write a paper and present an oral presentation over your project. I chose to research Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene is one of the most recognized female biblical characters of the Holy Bible, but we know very little about her because there lacks a lot of explicit biblical details. Typically, the first thing taught about Mary Magdalene in Sunday School alludes that she was an ‘unholy’ (sex worker) saved by Jesus. Her discipleship or devotion to Jesus is hardly focused on, even though her undeniable love and devotion to her faith is something all women and men can look up to for the thousands of years after and for the years to come. Her name is mentioned 14 times and is included in all four of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John). She was present during the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
This idea of Mary Magdalene as the ‘repentant prostitute’ originated from many artist’s propagandized work during the 1600’s, continued into the nineteenth century through movies and books. Although that reputation still lingers today, more and more people are beginning to recognize Mary Magdalene for her discipleship thanks to feminist scholars.
The piece of artwork I analyzed was “The Penitent Magdalene” by Titian (Tiziano Vecellio).
Titian was one of the most, if not the most, famous painters of the sixteenth century in Venice. He was one of the first artists to ever use oil paintings and his technique of using long brush strokes inspired many future artists. Much of his lifetime was spent flourishing in his career since he started artistic workshops at an early age. It is said Titian set the standards for physical beauty through erotic female paintings.
This piece of artwork was created in 1531 in Venice, Italy. Right away you can tell this is very European based on the characteristics of the woman. During the time of the sixteenth century, Mary’s lustful reputation was rising. The focus of this painting is the sensual vibe of the woman. Her face looks up in disbelief, as though she is grateful Jesus saved her from her perpetual sins. This painting made it permissible for future artists to incorporate eroticism in their paintings. Titian portrayed Mary Magdalene with every correspondent of beauty in Venice during this period: long, thin blonde hair, dark arched eyebrows, oval blue eyes, rosy ears and cheeks, and the slight dimple in the center of the chin.
As I was researching, I came across where the piece of artwork is located currently… Florence! The city I was to be studying abroad in in a couple months! So, one of the main things on my ‘Study Abroad Bucket List’ was to find the painting in Florence.
On one of my last days in Florence, I woke up early and went to the Palazzo Pitti. It was only a 15 minute walk from my apartment and I had walked by the museum many times the past month. This palace was built by Luca Pitti to challenge the hated Medici family and was constructed around 1440. Today, the building alone is a great example of Renaissance architecture and houses several important museums within the palace. The content is overwhelming and each room of the museum is packed from top to bottom. Each piece of artwork in the museum is the original piece.
I was expecting the place to be packed full of people, but once I got to the museum, I was one of the only visitors there. As I walked around trying to find the room, Sala di Apollo, I got to see all of the other incredible pieces. When I finally reached the room where “The Penitent Magdalene” was said to be located, I looked all over trying to find the piece. As I was walking out, puzzled by where the artwork could be, there it was! Right by the door. It was so awesome to see the piece of artwork I had been researching for an entire semester in real life.
Ellie Rowe is a student at University of Nebraska, Lincoln, an ISA Global Ambassador, and an ISA Guest Blogger. She studied abroad in Florence, Italy.
Wow, I would love to go there!