Dr. Gustav Rau Collection, Southern France
Museum Schnütgen, Köln, September 2009 – December 2012 (on loan)
This exquisitely carved silhouetted ivory relief depicts Mary Magdalene, her hair with partial openwork, the reverse flattened. A half figure representation, the Saint turns to the left holding her ointment jar. Her nakedness is covered by a cloth draped around her body and by her long finely worked curls of hair which cascade over her shoulders leaving one breast exposed. Her plump face with dimpled cheeks and chin, full lips parted, her tired heavily lidded eyes gaze heavenward.
It is almost universally agreed today that characterisations of Mary Magdalene in Western Christianity as a repentant prostitute or loose woman are unfounded, arising from the merging of her identity with the unnamed sinner who anoints Jesus’s feet as recounted in Luke 7:36-50. Notions of her as a penitent sinner can be traced at least as far back as Ephraim the Syrian in the fourth century. This became the generally accepted view in Western Christianity after the homily of Pope Gregory I in about 591. According to medieval legend, Mary spent a period of repentance as a desert hermit after leaving her life as a follower of Jesus. Subsequent religious lore conflates her story with that of Saint Mary of Egypt, another repentant prostitute who lived as a hermit and whose clothes wore out and fell off in the desert. In medieval depictions, Mary’s long flowing, usually blonde or red-blonde, hair covers her body entirely preserving her modesty (supplemented in certain German representations by thick body hair). From the 16th century some depictions show part of her naked body, the amount of nudity tending to increase in successive periods. Even if covered, Mary often wears only a drape pulled around her or an undergarment. She is often shown naked in the legendary scene of her ‘Elevation’ where she is sustained in the desert by angels who raise her up and feed her heavenly manna. Other women of the New Testament in these depictions are usually shown with dark hair beneath a scarf, following contemporary standards of propriety by hiding their hair beneath headdresses or kerchiefs. Long hair was only worn loose in public by either prostitutes or (by the end of the Middle Ages) noblewomen; working and middle-class women were normally expected to keep their hair covered or at least bound up, with exceptions made for festive occasions, in particular for brides on their wedding day.