The Magdalene Reading – 23 July 2018
Here Mary Magdalene is depicted for us, a woman of great wealth and beauty. We know that it is Mary because next to her is the identifying sign, the pot of ointment she took to the tomb but never used, because Christ had risen. Her clothes are exquisite, her dress expensive, lined with silk and fur.
Mary sits on a red cushion reading or, more likely, saying her prayers. She holds in her hands a very valuable book, probably a Book of Hours, protected by a cloth. She is beautiful; her face is lovely and her hands elegant with long fingers. She is entirely taken up with contemplation. In the resurrection narrative in John’s Gospel she is the one who is first to comprehend that love is stronger than death.
The point of this image is this: all that she is and all that she has are Christ’s, devoted to him with great love. It was painted so that all who knelt before this image would be encouraged to respond in the same way as Mary.
This picture is a fragment of a much larger altar-piece, painted by Rogier van der Weyden in 1445. At the centre of the picture was an image (now lost) of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child on her lap. All we can see now is the part of the red folds of the edge of the Virgin’s garment. Standing next to Mary Magdalene is St Joseph (dressed in blue). He too is taken up with prayer, fingering rosary beads that hang down close to the Magdalene’s book.
Rogier van der Weyden painted Mary Magdalene many times, most often weeping at the foot of the cross. She was, for him, an exemplary disciple, who shows the viewer how to respond to Jesus Christ, at his death and in his risen life. This picture is in the National Gallery in London. It is usually hung in the same room as the Arnolfini Portrait. The wife in that picture is wearing a similar dress.
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
Collect for Mary Magdalene
Almighty God, whose Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of mind and body and called her to be a witness to his resurrection: forgive our sins and heal us by your grace, that we may serve you in the power of his risen life; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen