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The Hair of the Desert Magdalen: Its Use and Meaning in Donatello’s Mary Magdalen and Tuscan Art of the Late Fifteenth Century

The Hair of the Desert Magdalen: Its Use and Meaning in Donatello’s Mary Magdalen and Tuscan Art of the Late Fifteenth Century

Bradfield, Bess

York Medieval Yearbook, ISSUE No. 1, (2002)

Abstract

In Western iconography, the Mary Magdalen is popularly depicted with long, loose hair. The origins of this emblem can be found in the Magdalen’s rather complex biography. According to medieval Church teaching, as formulated by Pope Gregory the Great, she was at one and the same time those women who the New Testament variously described as Mary of Magdala, Mary of Bethany, and the unnamed ‘sinner’ of Luke 7. The woman who washed Jesus’ feet with tears and ointment, ‘and wiped them with the hairs of her head’ became one of the most popular images of the Magdalen in early medieval art, appearing in representations as diverse as the Ruthwell Cross (seventh or early eighth century) and the Codex Egberti (c.990). To medieval Church writers, whose attitude toward women was strongly coloured by their views on the desirability of chastity, and a misogynist opinion of women’s inherent lustfulness, the Magdalen’s sin was to be identified as licentiousness, or even adultery and prostitution.

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