Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Mary Magdalene: the Sensual and the Spiritual

I have been seeing a lot of Mary Magdalene lately.  In writing my book The Quest for Mary Magdalene I have been looking for what can be discovered of the real woman, the historical figure, such as might be found of her in the few but highly significant references to her in the gospels.  But that has been only part of the quest, for Mary Magdalene is most of all a woman whose identity has been formed in later centuries by the Church to suit its changing ideology and also by the popular imagination.

Sebastiano del Piombo self-portrait 1518.
At any rate I have been seeing a lot of Mary Magdalene lately, looking at thousands of images of her.  And in doing so I have discovered a painter I had not known before, Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547).  He was Venetian but was much in Rome where Michelangelo worked with him hand in glove, Michelangelo admiring Sebastiano's command of colour; in several paintings, according to Vasari, Michelangelo provides the line and Sebastiano provides the brilliant Venetian sense of colouring.

But I like Sebastiano's line as well.  His figures are at once monumental and contained, sensual and spiritual.

He began life as a musician, mostly a solo player on the lute, then turned to painting.  His first work that drew wide attention turns out to be the one including Mary Magdalene that I have shown in a previous post that was done for the church of San Giovanni Crisostomo in Venice.

Another Mary Magdalene is the one below, a detail of the deposition of Jesus' body from the cross.  Painted in 1516 it is now at the Hermitage in St Petersburg.  Once again Mary Magdalene has a contained and powerful feminine presence, a sensitivity and a knowing.

Sebastiano is not much noted these days, an oversight that I intend to correct for myself by looking more into his life and work. 

The Deposition by Sebastiano del Piombo.