Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Mary Magdalene, from the Braque Triptych
  • Creator: Rogier van der Weyden, painter
  • Description:

    This portrait of Mary Magdalene is one panel of a triptych, painted around 1452 by Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden. The work was commissioned by Catherine de Brabant, a young wealthy widow living in Tournai (in modern-day Belgium)-- probably to commemorate her husband, Jehan Braque, and shorten his time in purgatory through her prayers. Unlike most of Van der Weyden’s work, the Braque triptych was intended for display in a private home as a subject for contemplation and highly personal religious devotion. John the Baptist occupies the far-left panel, opposite Mary Magdalene, while the center painting depicts Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist. The landscape in the background continues across all three panels, uniting the work.

    The persona of Mary Magdalene depicted in medieval art is actually a composite of several biblical women. Mary Magdalene is identified in the Bible as an early follower of Jesus and more importantly, as the first witness to the resurrection. In commentary on the gospels written in the first centuries after Christ’s death, the actions of several other Marys mentioned in scripture were attributed to Mary Magdalene. Eventually, two instances of anonymous women forgiven by Jesus for adultery were also associated with Magdalene, and by the medieval period, the composite Mary Magdalene recognizable today appeared as a major subject of popular veneration. This conflation of New Testament women also gives Mary one of her most common visual attributes - the alabaster jar or box to hold perfumed oils. There are four scriptural episodes in which women anoint Jesus-- three women are unnamed, one is called Mary, leading to the incorporation of these stories into Mary Magdalene’s imagery.

    While the three panels form a single composition, the Magdalene is set apart from the rest of the figures in the triptych in several ways. Mary Magdalene is the only character clothed in completely contemporary dress, and van der Weyden rendered her clothing in great detail, dressing her as a fashionable member of the Netherlandish bourgeoisie. The bodice of her kirtle is somewhat loosely laced in front, showing her fine linen underdress while still highlighting the shape of her body. The attached sleeves are worked in detailed, high-sheen brocade patterned in bright colors. Van der Weyden’s depiction of Mary Magdalene’s clothing and long red hair emphasizes her worldliness and shows contours of the body to denote physicality and sexuality, referencing her status as a repentant sinner. Unlike her dress, which closely mimics real-life styles, Magdalene’s headdress is unusual. The overall shape is reminiscent of early 15th century styles, but the thin strips of fabric, wrapped to display frayed edges are noteworthy as are the pseudo-Hebrew characters across the front. Jolly suggests that the headdress has both a positive and negative connotation, evoking ancient sibyls as well as the figure of the Foolish Virgin. Van der Weyden painted a similar headdress in the Saint Columba Altarpiece (see below). Mary Magdalene’s pose is much more naturalistic than that of the other figures in the painting. The composition of her panel shows more similarity to contemporary Italian portraits of wealthy lay-women than it does to the highly structured poses in which van der Weyden paints Jesus, Mary, and the two St. Johns in the Braque Triptych. At the same time scholars have read theological meanings into this representation including Mary Magdalene as an embodiment both of the Foolish and Wise Virgins and as spiritually pregnant by the love of God.

    These differences serve to set Mary Magdalene apart as a figure with whom everyday worshippers, especially women, could identify. In late medieval Christian culture, the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene were often used to represent the “dual paths to salvation”, innocence from sin or penance and forgiveness. Magdalene’s story of sin and repentance was much more relatable than a life lived wholly free from transgression, and women were encouraged to imagine themselves in Mary Magdalene’s place as part of their devotions-- and to feel shame, joy, and love for Christ as intensely as she must have. Indeed, the redemptive power of tears to bring a sinner closer to Christ was a common theme in northern Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. Van der Weyden paints Mary Magdalene with tiny, gem-like tears, perhaps encouraging viewers to weep with her.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Clothing Devotional Objects Hagiography Mary Magdalene, Saint Tears
  • Geographic Area: Low Countries
  • Century: 15
  • Date: Circa 1450-1452
  • Related Work: Braque Triptych, three panels with John the Baptist, Virgin Mary, Christ and John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene.
    Braque Triptych, central panel with the Virgin Mary, Christ, and John the evangelist.
    Braque Triptych, left panel with John the Baptist.
    Braque Triptych, outer shutter on the right side with an inscription in the shape of a cross.
    Braque Triptych, outer shutter on the left side with a skull and the Braque family's coat of arms.
  • Current Location: Paris, Musée du Louvre, inv. nr. R.F. 2063
  • Original Location: Tournai, Belgium
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Wood panel; Oil paint;
  • Donor: Laywoman; Catherine de Brabant, nineteen-year-old widow of Jehan Braque, a wealthy bourgeois.
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 41/35/
  • Inscription: Maria ergo accepit libram unguenti nardi pistici pretiose(/i) et unxit pedes Ihesu ["Mary therefore took a pound of ointment of right spikenard, of great price, and anointed the feet of Jesus"(John 12:3)]
  • Related Resources: Acres, Alfred. "Rogier van der Weyden's Painted Texts," Artibus et Historiae 21, 41 (2002): 75-109.
    Jolly, Penny Howell. Picturing the "Pregnant" Magdalene in Northern Art, 1430-1550: Addressing and Undressing the Sinner-Saint. Ashgate, 2014.
    Olson, Vibeke. "'Woman, Why Weepest Thou?' Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary and the Transformative Power of Holy Tears in Late Medieval Devotional Painting." In Mary Magdalene, Iconographic Studies from the Middle Ages to the Baroque. Edited by Michelle A. Erhardt and Amy M. Morris. Brill, 2012. Pages 361-382.
    Vaes, Vanessa. "'A phoenix from the flames …': The Testament of Catherine de Brabant (ca. 1431-1499) and Its Relationship to Rogier van der Weyden's Braque Triptych (ca. 1452)," Oud Holland 121, 2-3 (2008): 89-98.