Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Mary Magdalene with the Vera Icon
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This fresco of Mary Magdalene holding the Vera Icona (true image) appears on one of the triumphal arches in front of the choir in the beguinage church of Saint Agnes in Sint-Truiden. The mural features Mary Magdalene, holding the haloed head of Jesus Christ by her breast. She stands in a painted architectural niche supported by two pillars each containing a series of smaller niches. On the left, there is a small figure wearing a bishop’s miter. However, there is not much left of this figure, so it remains unidentified. The image of Mary Magdalene stands as part of a group of three figures, all painted on triumphal arches. The other two figures are Saint Christopher and the Virgin Mary, and together the three of them are considered the bearers of Christ. Saint Christopher is known for carrying a child who later identified himself as Christ across a river with great difficulty, and the Virgin Mary is the mother of Christ. The head of Christ, which Mary Magdalene holds in this fresco, is a form of Christ Pantocrator, the all-knowing lord of the universe, as opposed to the child Christ with which the Virgin Mary and Saint Christopher are associated.

    The beguine movement, beginning around 1200 in the Low Countries, offered women an alternative form of religious experience. Unlike monasteries, life in beguinages allowed women to be pious without committing to a life in enclosure. Nuns were considered brides of Christ and were consecrated for life, while beguines lived and worked in the community as teachers, nurses, and producers of textiles. If they chose, they could marry and leave the community when they wanted. While beguines were never officially recognized as a religious order, they had an impact on local communities in important ways through their spiritual, artistic and economic contributions.

    This is one of the first surviving examples of an image of Mary Magdalene and the Vera Icona. It brings to mind the cult of Veronica and her veil on which the Vera Iconawas imprinted. The way in which Mary Magdalene holds the head of Christ mimics the way in which the Virgin Mary is often shown holding the Christ child, or alternatively, the body of the deceased Christ. But the image of Mary Magdalene and Christ is also very different from the image of the Virgin Mary and Christ. Mary Magdalene holds only Christ’s floating head. This is meant to show the ethereal nature of God’s fleeting incarnation on earth. It may also be significant that Christ’s head sits at Mary Magdalene’s breast because it was believed that through the head and the heart people were able to make contact with God.

    Mary Magdalene is a particularly important figure in the history of Christianity. Churchmen in the early medieval period fused three Biblical women together: the unnamed prostitute in Luke, Mary of Bethany associated with the contemplative life and Mary the Magdalene, a follower of Christ from whom he had cast out devils, She was a repentant sinner who was saved by Christ. She renounced a life of profane love in order to become Christ’s spiritual lover. This love is characterized as the combination of love of humankind and of God in the ultimate expression of religious love. Mary Magdalene also has the honor of being the first person to whom the resurrected Christ appeared and was known as the “apostle of apostles” because of her preaching about salvation. She is therefore a role model for many women for her penance and sanctity.In addition to being a prominent figure in the history of Christianity, she was also a particularly important figure for the beguines. The beguines strove to emulate Mary Magdalene’s penitence, and her capacity to endure suffering. They also prayed for her intervention because she was the person to whom Christ revealed himself following the resurrection. This particular image of Mary Magdalene, accompanied by images of Saint Christopher and the Virgin Mary, would have been especially meaningful for the beguines. Not only were images a very effective medium for beguines to experience contemplative visions, but this trio was representative of the mystical love which the beguines had for Christ and for God. Looking at images of the three Christ bearers together would have been inspiring for the beguines as they went about their daily devotions.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Beguines Jesus Christ in Art Mary Magdalene, Saint in Art
  • Geographic Area: Low Countries
  • Century: 14
  • Date: ca. 1300
  • Related Work: Reconstruction of the painting of Mary Magdalen at Sint-Truiden. See page 282 in this book, In zuiverheid leven. Het Sint-Agnesbegijnhof van Sint-Truiden.
    Interior of the beguinage church of St Agnes.
  • Current Location: Sint-Truiden, Beguinage church of St Agnes
  • Original Location: Sint-Truiden, Beguinage church of St Agnes
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Frescoes
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 195/43/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Bergmans, Anna. “The Murals of the Beguinage Church of St Agnes in Sint-Truiden: Function, Meaning and Context.” Jaarboek Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen 2007/Antwerp Royal Museum Annual 2007. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, 2009. Pages 22-77;
    In zuiverheid leven. Het Sint-Agnesbegijnhof van Sint-Truiden. Edited by Thomas Coomans and Anna Bergmans. Vlaams Instituut voor het Onroerend Erfgoed, 2008. Available online;
    Jolly, Penny Howell. Picturing the “Pregnant” Magdalene in Northern Art, 1430-1550: Addressing and Undressing the Sinner-Saint. Dorset Press, 2014;
    Simons, Walter. City of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001;
    Smets, L. “The Church of the Beguinage of St. Truiden. Conservation and restoration of the Architecture, Interior and Furniture: A Case-Study.” Monumentum 20-22 (1980): 17-23.