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Artemisia's Mary Magdalene:
"She chose the best part."

The Penitent Mary Magdalene

Artemisia Gentileschi
oil on canvas

circa  1612

One of life's greatest pleasures while living in Europe has been to visit en one of the more specially curated art exhibits that open during the colder months --- particularly retrospectives or one-artist or one-theme shows .  A recent visit with an intimate circle friends to the exhibit entitled, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Story of a Passion, in Milan's Palazzo Reale, was reason enough for 4 friends and me to travel to Milan in one of the fast trains that take you there in comfort and elegance good enough for pre-exhibit conversation and comparing of notes.


Our group had been preparing for this excursion for some time, and by the time we joined up that early January morning in Rome's TERMINI Station, we were indeed eager to compare notes during the 3-hour train ride to Milan.  Our group shared passages from a recently published biography of this bold female artist, contemporary to Caravaggio,and Galileo, to name a few. Therefore by the time we crossed the velvet winter curtains of the entrance to the Palazzo Reale  and looked over the  biographical chart about Artemisia, welcoming visitors, I am sure the sign's place names and dates  swam before our eyes in all our excitement and we hurriedly proceeded  to view the art on display. Ah! So there we were in front one of the artist's canvases of the 4 or 5 "Penitent Mary Magdalenes" she painted in her career -- specifically one from around 1615, when Artemisia sojourned in Florence.  Speechless, none of us knew what to say, until  one of the ladies in the group, Brigit, could be heard sobbing softly. Then she told us in her distinctly Colombian antioqueño accent:  "This is the reason I came to the show!"

I know that, except for Brigit's tearful exposé  I might have blithely passed by Artemisia Gentileschi's Maddalena in yellow satin with no qualms -- if my friend's keen observations had not made me see how much this particular composition was so much more compelling than the more well-known series of Judith decapitating the tyrant Holofernes (one of these shown on this page) associated with the 17-century artist.  In fact, Gentileschi repeatedly painted the Biblical story from the book of Judith, art historians insist, in order to exorcize the violence she suffered as a 16-year-old girl, just as she began her young career as a painter (unheard of in those days, for a woman!), in the workshop of her famous father, Orazio Gentileschi. As all sorts of Roman law records of the time attest, painter Agostino Tossi, a younger colleague of her father, as well as expert in perspective, forced Artemisia over and over again to have intercourse with him, and in some ways tried to block her path as artist both emotionally and socially. Therefore, it is indeed possible by way of the Holofernes canvases to do an autobiographical "reading" of Artemisia's brave insistence on becoming a respected artist, but especially of her obsession of somehow transforming her great inner sorrow into something she could exorcise.


"Processing," we would say nowadays, is what she was doing as she painted one after another and another, her decapitations of the tyrant Holofernes. However, I must confess that  Brigit's emotional reaction to the Magdalene portrait disclosed to me what I think is an equally important series of insights into Artemisia's story of a passion.






















Judith decapitating Holofernes

Artemisia Gentileschi
oil on canvas

circa  1612

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Recalling friend Brigit's observations,  I would venture to say that this particular representation of Mary Magdalene could indeed suggest a less violent and bloody approach in the handling of great traumas -- and one that has to do with introspection self-reflection disciplines of the soul. The portrait is to a great extent about her and the mirror, and about the gestures of her two hands in the dark space that frames her in the yellow dress. 

The pose of the (we would now say) heavy-set Maria Magdalene in the work that called Brigit to Milan to see the show -- and to sob disconsolately -- reminds one of a great operatic soprano singing her own aria of abandonment in music of the 1600s or 1700s. First of all, the woman is gazing at us most directly and theatrically. Moreover, her regal size and elegance illustrate writer Stendhal's observation in his Promenades of Rome, about how the aesthetic of large ladies in high art such as opera or even paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, corresponds perfectly well to  great --or large--  passions. Anyway, Artemisia's operatic Magdalene elegantly plays the part of a  grande dame of tragedy on an elegant stage, as she sings her story and gestures with her two hands in order to better express her meaning. With her right hand she directs our attention to her heart, and with the other ... to the mirror somewhat removed from her, perhaps, bathed in the dark and on the table behind her. On the upper frame edge of the mirror in Gentileschi's canvas, which by the way reflects the Magdalene's face in profile with her blond curls and earring, appears a Latin quote that certainly Artemisia wanted us to read:                             ----      Optimam  partem elegit      ---

I vividly recall my friend Brigit translating the Latin phrase in order reveal  the possible  secret of the painting. "She chose the best part", a reference to the Gospel passage  where Jesus tells  Magdalene's sister Martha how Mary Magdalene's more quiet, contemplative demeanor while their Lord is visiting them is more excellent than Martha's busy to-and-fro." 

"The mirror  and the heart. The hands. The quiet sorrow. It's a circle of self-awareness and emotional knowledge," Brigit sighed.


Some days  after our trip to Milan, while I was still pondering the Gentileschi Magdalene, her hands, and the tell-tale mirror, I happened upon a quote by another artist of women's sorrows and epiphanies,  Anais Nin,  that provided me with another heartline to this theme. "We don't see things as they are. We see them as we are," says Nin, author of a famous Diary and of Henry and June.  And taking the juxtaposition of heart and the mirror into Nin's quote, I wanted to ask Brigit if perhaps Artemisia might have found the answer  In the image --her painted image!-- of the Magdalene's turning to us and  away from the mirror, yet touching  it, while her right hand lies softly on her heart.   

Detail  (left) of the inscription on the mirror

Optimam  partem elegit

and (above left) of the Magdalene's two hands  

"We do not see things as they are. We see  them as we are." In a way, Nin's phrase denies the so-called objectivity of seeing things as they "are." Instead, I would suggest, we see them precisely through the image we have of ourselves, which is in our own heart. Through our heart's feeling we can arrive at knowledge. This can come from considering as though in images the story of our lives and passions --- often painful recollections --- or perhaps through paintings that speak to us or move us to tears because of what they reflect to us. In some way, then,  Artemisia's Mary Magdalene is saying something to us about the role played in her life by her image of self. With an  almost soft, feminine effort, the Mary of this canvas who "chose the better part"  would seem to be pushing the mirror reflection of herself away from the center of the picture. But I do not see her gesture as one of downright rejection of vanity. The way I see her, Mary's hand is avowing this part of herself. She is absolutely and tenderly connected to it, though, in fact, the mirror is in the tenebrous regions of the composition. (In fact, slightly to the left of the mirror and further back, there is the shadowy presence of a skull, gazing frontally at us! Traditionally, most Mary Magdalenes are painted in contemplation of a skull -- symbolic of the vanity of her life before she decides to change her ways and follow Jesus, repentantly.) In Artemisia's telling of the story, Mary Magdalene's is a choice. She chooses, with the two hands separately and yet together, "the best part."


It occurs to me that what could seem to us as theatrical in either Gentileschi's operatic Magdalene, dressed to the T's in all that splendid gold that glows from her canvas's "chiaroscuro," is not unlike my friend Brigit's also theatrical moment of tears when she  made my group of travelers to one of Milan's great palazzos stop and witness her sobs of emotion. On a deeper yet similarly respectful level, though, it also all goes back to the great metaphor of life and even the story of Christ's passion, as a theater, and of the parts  that we players play in it -- to quote the likes of Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Calderόn de la Barca, to name but a few. It is about choosing the better part to play, literally, and realizing that when we are on the stage, we must somehow look directly at our audience, just as Artemisia's blonde Magdalene does. In addition, like her, we must not underestimate the power of expression and, especially, of choice that we have in our two hands, for they link our gaze and our stance with  what is in our heart and what is in our side stories of passions, which very much are an integral part of the part we play in our world picture. 

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