Mary Magdalene by Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo

Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo

Mary Magdalene, c.1535–40, Oil on canvas, 89.1 x 82.4 cm, The National Gallery, London, NG1031, © The National Gallery, London

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The Rising Light

Commentary by

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.

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