Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Mary Magdalene Leaving the House of Feasting , 1857, Watercolour on paper, 356 x 206 mm, Tate; Purchased 1911, N02859, © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

The Magdalene Moves On

Commentary by Maryanne Saunders

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Read by Chloë Reddaway

Mary Magdalene Leaving the House of Feasting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti explicitly identifies Mary Magdalene as the ‘sinful’ woman mentioned in Luke 7:37, in a tradition that goes back to Pope Gregory I, and that is still common today (despite the Roman Catholic Church officially distancing itself from this view in 2016).  

The figure of the protagonist in the foreground dominates the watercolour, leaving only a small background scene visible at the right of the sheet. The female figure in this secondary scene may well represent Mary a second time, at an earlier point—before her departure from the house of the Pharisee.

The position of her feet and windswept hair indicate she is hurrying from the scene with purpose. Mary’s demeanour is solemn, she clutches her pot of ointment to her chest protectively and appears determined. A halo glows around her head indicating her holiness and perhaps her newfound status as one who has been saved.  

The Magdalene was closely associated in Christian tradition with prostitution and extra-marital sex, particularly in the Victorian era where homes for ‘fallen’ women and other charitable endeavours were founded and often dedicated to her to eradicate this ‘problem’ in the lower classes. Rossetti does not, however, depict a wanton or degraded Magdalene so as to make of her a cautionary tale. Instead, the artist has chosen an empowered, renewed, and even inspirational character for his painting.  

The story clearly fascinated Rossetti: he went on to depict Mary twice more in Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee (1858) and a portrait study in 1859. The overwhelming impression given by this work is one of redemption, forgiveness, and moving on. Mary moves swiftly from her old life and devotedly into the new one she has chosen with Christ. Although depicting a story of contrition, Rossetti appears to celebrate the vulnerability and bravery it takes to repent rather than relishing the spectacle. 

See full exhibition for Luke 7:36–50

Luke 7:36–50

Revised Standard Version

36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table. 37And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?” 41“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”