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Mary Magdalene In The Cave

Page history last edited by Tracy 11 years, 7 months ago


Mary Magdalene In The Cave, by Jules Joseph Lefebvre


Photo courtesy of: www.1st-art-gallery.com



          Before reading “The Rise of the Fallen Woman,” by Nina Auerbach and “Prostitution,” by W.R. Greg, I searched for photographs and paintings that would remind me of the way I interpreted the “idea” of a “fallen woman.” I had narrowed down my choices to three: a photograph of a prostitute, with the photographer being unknown, a painting titled The Snake Charmer, by J.L. Gerome, and Mary Magdalene In The Cave, by Jules Joseph Lefebvre.

          I must express the difficulty I faced in choosing between the three, and ultimately, how hard it was for me to go with Mary Magdalene In The Cave. I feared the painting would offend some of my classmates, and that my interpretation and discussion of the painting and how it relates to the text may anger some.

          Greg stated: “…the subject is a loathsome one; -- feeling, also, that no good can be hoped unless we are at liberty to treat the subject, and all its collaterals, with perfect freedom… -- convinced that the evil must be probed with a courageous and unshrinking hand before a cure can be suggested… -- have deliberately resolved to call public attention to it, though we do so with pain, reluctance, and diffidence.” It was for this very reason that I chose Mary Magdalene In The Cave. It is important to realize that Greg’s words carry a lot of truth and weight. We cannot talk about this subject without addressing every aspect of it wholly and blatantly, even if it does make us uncomfortable. The point Greg makes here is particularly important – one cannot seriously talk about the subject of “fallen women” with kids gloves on, and though I hesitated to pick this particular painting and discuss it, this quote specifically is important because it so powerfully states that we must examine the “taboo” in its entirety before we pass judgment or suggest a “cure."

          Mary Magdalene In the Cave, for me, was a blatant, confusing, and startling interpretation of a “fallen woman.” The painting displays Mary on the ground in a cave, not long after Jesus’ crucifixion and her flee from Jerusalem. It is important to understand that while Mary is revered and worshiped by some Christians, others pegged her for a prostitute and a sinner and find her presence in the Bible to be abhorrent. But in order to understand the ultimate reason for why I chose this painting, it is important to know the two sides of the “Mary Magdalene” debate, and note the differences.

          In Luke 8:2, it says Mary had seven evil spirits, cast out by the Lord. Luke 7:37-39 says: “And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a SINNER… This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.” Some Christians believe we are all sinners because we are not pure and perfect. And while the quote does not blatantly say exactly what “sin” Mary committed, many Christians believed Mary to be a prostitute, and further evidence in the Bible suggests that the Scribes and Pharisees watched Mary in the act of adultery (evidence found in John 8).

          Yet, even with the possible evidence showing Mary as a prostitute, some interpretations of the Bible say Mary was not a prostitute at all. In fact, some believe Mary was Jesus’ wife, and was pregnant with his child at the time of his death, which was believed to be the reason why she fled Jerusalem. Evidence supporting this claim is found in statements of Jesus saying Mary was the “most beloved” out of all of his followers, the fact that most Jewish men of the time were married, the statement of her being his “companion,” (which was interpreted to mean “wife”) and that he “kissed her.” Whether or not this is true (due to the different interpretations and conflicting thoughts/evidence) is debated highly.

          With this all in mind, I felt that this painting was perfect for the discussion of both readings. In part, it relates to “The Rise of the Fallen Woman,” because Mary, if she were a prostitute, would be a prime example of a “fallen woman” who has “risen.” Though she was pegged a prostitute, caught in the act of adultery, Jesus forgave her for her sins and embraced her. After she was forgiven, she devoted her life to Jesus as a follower, and is now worshiped and highly regarded by most Christians.

         In addition, the text makes the point of needing to “demystify” the “fallen woman,” and says “…unconscious or half-formulated cultural myths are not always antithetical to enlightened historical understanding, nor can history and statistics always exorcise them… …the mind’s changing transmutation of social fact is the only “true history” we know.” Mary is surrounded in myth and misunderstanding, and still, there is no concrete evidence of her prostitution or her being the wife of Jesus. Her presence in the Bible and her presence at Jesus crucifixion and rising are confusing, for she is hardly spoken of before or after, disappearing just as quickly as she enters. This relates directly to the quote mentioned above in the fact that there is this need to “demystify” and “understand” exactly who she was before we can pass judgment or suggest a “cure.” Such is the case with many prostitutes. Their situations were and are not fully understood, and the changing of the times and “social fact” has not changed this.

          Just like with Eve in the Old Testament, Mary also underwent “the absolute transforming power of the fall.” And in the instance of marriage or death being the only way for these sins to be forgiven, Mary was thought to have either been overtaken with evil, and eventually exorcised of the sprits, and forgiven by Jesus, (and was believed to be the first to see him rise after crucifixion) or to have been Jesus’ wife, bore his child, and died some years later. Either way, she is an excellent example of a “fallen woman” who has risen, and is now the patron saint of Magdalene College, Oxford, and Magdalene College, Cambridge, and her name was also used for the infamous Magdalene Asylums for “fallen women” in Ireland.

If Jesus was Mary’s wife and had his child, she was afforded the protection that prostitutes were not given. Mary would then be the example of a wife who secured protection via marriage. And yet, while prostitution is looked at with disgust, marriage is viewed with rose-colored glasses, and is ultimately the only way in which a woman can have sex and not be considered a “harlot.” However, Greg argues: “For one woman who thus, of deliberate choice, sells herself to a lover, ten sell themselves to a husband. Let not the world cry shame upon us for the juxtaposition. The barter is as naked and bold in the one case as in the other; the thing bartered is the same; the difference between the two transactions lies in the price that is paid down.” I find this particularly interesting, because if one looks at marriage as a form of prostitution, with “the thing being bartered the same,” and the only difference being the “price paid down,” one could argue Mary is a “fallen woman” no matter if she is a “wife” or a “prostitute."

I think this image offers support to the discussion of “fallen women” in the Auerbach reading, not only because of the myths surrounding Mary and who she was to Jesus and to others, but also because she “fell” and eventually “rose.” It is the perfect depiction of how a “fallen woman” can “redeem” herself, either through death, marriage, or penance, and Mary is an example of that. In some circles, she was saved by Jesus, forgiven, and became one of his devoted followers. In other circles, she was, again, saved, forgiven, and a follower, but she was also his wife and mother to his child. I also think the painting and Mary’s story is relevant to the text, and her story (which is shrouded in myth) is often ignored. I believe it gives weight to the piece, due to the fact that the Bible was written long before Auerbach, and yet, the morals and ways “fallen women” were viewed (and how they could or could not “redeem themselves”) had not really changed.

While the painting relates heavily to the Auerbach reading, I also think it relates to the Greg reading, in that we cannot fully understand the reasons why Mary became a prostitute, if she was one. In addition, we cannot know what circumstances surrounded her “fall” and “rise.” We do not know if she was naïve and seduced, whether or not she was promised marriage by her seducer and then denied the promise, or if she was married before and had resorted to prostitution as a way of living after her husband’s death. Any of these things could have happened to Mary, just as they happened to the women Greg discusses in the reading, and just like with these other women, Mary’s plight could have been (and more likely was) ignored.

This painting called out to me because at first glance, you don’t know who this woman is, and therefore, many assumptions can be made about this painting. There were many Victorian paintings of nudes. If you didn't have the slightest clue as to who this woman was, you would simply see a nude portrait of a woman. The way she is displayed – on the ground, on her back, curled up, with her face covered -- can suggest many things. The pose is submissive and her arms are covering her face. You cannot see her expression. We do not know if she is happy, or sad. We do not know if this is a sensual pose, where she is a prostitute waiting for a lover, or if this is a dejected, beaten pose where she is devastated and exhausted. Just like with a “fallen woman” we have no idea what circumstances led her to this place. But the way she is displayed for all to see, yet, hiding her face in shame, suggests that the Victorian attitude was that prostitutes were useful, yet, shameful. She is, essentially, invisible to those around her, just as many prostitutes were and are essentially invisible.

Now, knowing that this was Mary, I could not help but think about her story, and begin to interpret the painting from that point of view. The painting description said she was by the cave, not long after Jesus’ crucifixion. One has to wonder why she is naked. It looks as if she is on the sand, near some water. Was she bathing the blood from the crucifixion away? Many Victorian women were painted with curves, but the swell of her belly – is that because she is with child? Is she simply turning back to a life of prostitution after having lost her husband, like so many women had to do before her? Again, the Victorian attitude to me appears as if whatever she is feeling has been put on some sort of display, yet, the dark colors and the way she is covering her face suggests that she is hiding herself. It feels as if the Victorians were pointing the finger and staring, unable to look away, and yet, wanting to cast shame upon the very thing they spend so much time misunderstanding and gawking at.

I do find a lot of irony in Mary’s story and the ways in which the painting and texts relate. Mary was absolved of her sins, via either the Lord’s forgiveness or by marriage. But the Auerbach reading states, one can only “rise” through death or marriage, but as we’ve seen in the Greg reading, it is rare for a prostitute to be forgiven or get married or be “kept mistresses,” (for what man would marry or keep an untrustworthy “harlot,” who obviously enjoys her profession, and who is not even taken seriously by the law?).  As we have seen in the readings, being forgiven by God and being chaste would not put food on the table or clothes on their backs. The Lord provided for Mary, but the women Greg discussed in the reading, though God-fearing, felt as if the Lord did not provide for them. Is death the only way to be truly absolved after being forced into the only profession that would give you enough money to live on? It is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” situation, and the only irony one can find when stuck between a rock and a hard place is sad irony.

And so, we are left with two questions: was Mary a forgiven prostitute, who served the Lord devotedly? Or was Mary his wife, saved via marriage, yet, subjected to prostitution of a different form?

          The painting and Mary’s untold story (shrouded in mystery, of course) give rise to these questions, and yet, does not give us any definitive answers. But just as unsurely as Mary is a “fallen woman,” who has “risen,” she is also a wife and a mother, absolved of any past indiscretions. Either way, it appears Mary just may have had it a bit easier than other “fallen women,” for she has risen above and beyond, and the others, sadly, will not.



Auerbach, Nina “The Rise of the Fallen Woman."

Greg, W.R. "Prostitution.”

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