Heavenly Venus: Mary Magdalene In Renaissance Noli Me Tangere Images
By Michelle Lambert-Monteleon
Master’s Thesis, University of South Florida, 2004
Abstract: Mary Magdalene has fulfilled many roles since she was first mentioned in the New Testament. Some of the most popular characters she has played are as First Witness to Christ’s resurrection, follower and companion of Christ, Apostle to the Apostles, penitential whore, and exemplar for Christian women. This thesis was researched and written to explore some of these personae as they appear in Renaissance images of the Noli Me Tangere scene. The Noli Me Tangere story, which describes Christ’s postresurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene, comes from the Gospel of John Chapter 20:12-15. Until the fourteenth century the Noli Me Tangere scene was depicted as a part of pictorial cycles concerning the life and death of Christ, or on rare occasions the life and death of the Magdalene herself. However, with an increasing interest in humanism, artists began to explore the Noli Me Tangere scene as an opportunity to analyze Christ’s humanity and sexuality. The Noli Me Tangere as a backdrop is ideal since Mary Magdalene already suffers a reputation as a wanton woman.
Renaissance images of Mary Magdalene often depict the Magdalene as a Heavenly Venus. While the sensuality of Mary Magdalene as a licentious saint and the iconography of Venus as the representation of sexuality have been previously examined by scholars, the “love” aspect of Venus iconology as evident in the Noli Me Tangere images of the Magdalene has received little, if any, attention. As the foremost icon of reformed sinner, Mary Magdalene is representative of both lust and love, much like the goddess Venus, and several Renaissance images illustrate this dichotomy.
The image of the Magdalene as both a symbol of lust and love relates to her dual nature as an ideal woman and a wanton woman. In Renaissance culture, two fundamental types of women existed, the good and the bad. Each type of woman was assigned a set of traits which would indicate her social standing. The ideal woman should be beautiful, chaste, and obedient while the wanton woman was promiscuous and independent. Due to her mistaken identity as a fallen woman, Mary Magdalene was on the one hand assumed to be a prostitute and is often portrayed with the attributes of a temptress; in addition, the Gospels describe the Magdalene as a woman with independent means. On the other hand, Mary Magdalene repented her “evil” ways and found faith in Jesus Christ. She was already a renowned beauty, and after her conversion, she became the model of chastity and obedience.
Analyses of Mary Magdalene’s image in several Renaissance Noli Me Tangere paintings reflect both actual Renaissance women’s lives and the perception of Renaissance women. Thus, Mary Magdalene represents the dichotomy of woman as ideal and wanton; loving and lustful; forgiven and fallen; exemplary and immoral; chaste and seductive; obedient and willful; and lastly, saint and sinner.