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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Woman, Why Are You Weeping?

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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.

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