Iconography of St. Mary Magdalene


In all these subjects the accompanying attribute is the alabaster box of ointment, which has a double significance : it may be the perfume which she poured over the feet of the Saviour, -or the balm and spices which she had prepared to anoint his body. Sometimes she carries it in her hand, sometimes it stands at her feet, or near her;  frequently, in later pictures, it is borne by an attendant angel. The shape varies with the fancy. of the artist; it is a small vase,-a casket, a box, a cup with a cover; more or less ornamented, more or less graceful in form; but always there-the symbol at once of her conversion and her love, and so peculiar that it can leave no doubt of her identity.

The Life of St. Mary Magdalene

Taken from--Jameson.  Sacred and Ledgendary Art, vol. I.  London:
Longmans, Green, and Company (1890). 

Mary Magdalene was of the district of Magdala, on the shores of the Sea of 
Galilee, where stood her castle, called Magdalon; she was the sister of Lazarus and of Martha, and they were the children of parents reputed noble, or, as some say, of royal race. On the death of their father, Syrus, they inherited vast riches and possessions in land, which were equally divided between them. Lazarus betook himself to the military life; Martha ruled her possessions with great discretion, and was a model of virtue and propriety, -perhaps a little too much addicted to worldly cares; Mary, on the contrary, abandoned herself to luxurious pleasures, and became at length so notorious for her dissolute life that she was known through all the country round only as 'THE SINNER'.   Her discreet sister, Martha, frequently rebuked her for these disorders and at length persuaded her to listen to the exhortations of Jesus, through which her heart was touched and converted. The seven demons which possessed her, and which were expelled by the power of the Lord, were the seven deadly sins to which she was given over before her conversion. On one occasion Martha entertained the Saviour in her house, and, being anxious to feast him worthily, she was  'cumbered with much serving.' Mary, meanwhile, sat at the feet of Jesus, and heard his words, which completed the good work of her conversion; and when, some time afterwards, be supped in the house of Simon the Pharisee, she followed him thither and she brought an alabaster box of ointment and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with ointment - and He said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.' She became afterward one of the most devoted of his followers;  'ministered to him of her substance;' attended him to Calvary, and stood weeping at the foot of the cross. She, with the other Mary, watched by his tomb, and was the first to whom he appeared after the resurrection; her unfaltering faith, mingled as it was with the intensest grief and love, obtained for her this peculiar mark of favour. It is assumed by several commentators that our Saviour appeared first to Mary Magdalene, because she, of all those whom he had left on earth, had most need of consolation:-' The disciples went away to their own home; but Mary stood without the sepulchre, weeping.'

Thus far the notices in the Gospel and the suggestions of commentators:
the old Proven* legend then continues the story. After the ascension Lazarus with his two sisters, Martha and Mary; with Maximin, one of the seventy-two disciples, from whom they had received baptism; Cedon, the blind man whom our Saviour had restored to sight; and Marcella, the handmaiden who attended on the two sisters, were by the heathens set adrift in a vessel without sails, oars, or rudder; but, guided by Providence, they were safely borne over the sea till they landed in a certain harbour which proved to be Marseilles, in the country now called France. The people of the land were pagans, and refused to give the holy pilgrims food or shelter; so they were fain to take refuge under the porch of a temple and Mary Magdalene preached to the people, reproaching them for their senseless worship of dumb idols; and though at first they would not listen, yet being after a time convinced by her eloquence, and by the miracles performed by her and by her sister, they were converted and baptized. And Lazarus became, after the death of the good Maximin, the first bishop of Marseilles.

These things being accomplished, Mary Magdalene retired to a desert not far from the city. It was a frightful barren wilderness, in the midst of horrid rocks and caves; and here for thirty years she devoted herself to solitary penance for the sins of her past life, which she had never ceased to bewail bitterly. During this long seclusion, she was never seen or heard of, and it was supposed that she was dead. She fasted so rigorously, that but for the occasional visits of the angels, and the comfort bestowed by celestial visions, she must have perished. Every day during the last years of her penance, the angels came down from heaven and carried her up in their arms into regions where she was ravished by the sounds of unearthly harmony, and beheld the glory and the joy prepared for the sinner that repenteth. One day a certain hermit, who dwelt in a cell on one of those wild mountains, having wandered farther than usual from his home, beheld this wondrous vision-the Magdalene in the arms of ascending angels, who were singing songs of triumph as they bore her upwards; and the hermit, when he had a little recovered from his amazement, returned to the city of Marseilles, and reported what he had seen. According to some of the legends, Mary Magdalene died within the walls of the Christian church, after receiving the sacrament from the hand of St. Maximin; but the more popular accounts represent her as dying in her solitude, while angels watched over and administered to her.

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