At the start of John’s Gospel the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus. They stand for John’s readers. ‘What,’ he asks them and us together, ‘do you seek?’ (John 1:38–39). ‘Where you are staying’, they answer. He replies, ‘Come and see’: in and through the Gospel’s events that they—and the story that we—are about to undergo. What might any reader be looking for? A way to live, perhaps; some lasting truth; a fuller life. At the Gospel’s end Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb. First the angels ask her, ‘Why are you weeping?’ (v.13). In a moment Jesus will ask her the same, and then more. ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?’ (v.15). The Way, the Truth and the Life are not ideas or abstractions; they are a person (John 11:25).
Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo painted at least four surviving versions of this lavishly dressed young woman out alone at night, holding the viewer’s gaze. Mary was believed, in Savoldo’s day, to have been a courtesan in Galilee; in sixteenth-century Venice Savoldo’s figure will have recalled the city’s famous courtesans. We are bound to ask how sexy or saintly this woman is supposed to be. (Only the small ointment-jar identifies her as Mary Magdalene; one version omits it.) The challenge is more acute if the painting was commissioned by a man. (We cannot be sure; Mary Magdalene was admired by some of northern Italy’s most powerful and sophisticated women.) Savoldo keeps a delicate balance. Here is both a sexy jeu d’ esprit, and the soul that has transcended physical desires; both a tour de force to look at, and a meditation on the Christ we cannot see.
We have undergone John’s story. Mary’s love, tears and search are ours too. Savoldo invites us to take the time, as we admire his shimmering, beautiful Mary, gradually and with awe to discern beside us the presence that outshines the dawn on Easter Day.
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).