This scene’s lagoon and its light bring Venice instantly to mind. The ruins would be at home on any of the city’s outer islands. Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo’s Mary Magdalene faces the viewer. The sun is rising beyond her. But her shawl is reflecting a brilliant light whose source is not the sun at all. Light pours onto her from a point to the right of the viewer, in front of the painted scene. What is this light’s origin?
Mary turned (v.14); then, John tells us, she turned again (v.16). In the painting Mary has turned to her left, to face us; and to see the source of the light she must turn on, round to her left again. And John tells us whom she will see, when she does: she will be facing the risen Jesus himself. A double light is dawning: of the rising day; and of Mary’s enlightenment.
Mary turned: in Latin, conversa est. The verb is the verb as well of ‘conversion’, of the turn away from darkness towards the light of Christ. We see her on the course of her turn, her ‘conversion’.
But Mary herself has been, through centuries of Western Christendom, the archetype of every soul’s conversion. So she impersonates us, the viewers. We see on Mary’s shawl the brilliance of Christ’s Easter glory and on Mary’s face, half of it still in shadow, her dawning recognition of the figure to our right. She looks at us as she is about to look at Christ himself. We see in Mary what Christ is about to see; and we are invited to see in her what Christ will see in us if we, like Mary, turn. So we are invited too to turn in conversion to the source of all light.
1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magʹdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. 4 They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; 5 and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, 7 and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13T hey said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rab-boʹni!” (which means Teacher).