Last week’s blog mentioned my late-in-life enjoyment of fine art. While in Los Angeles for my oldest son David's graduation, this passion was renewed again as we visited the J. Paul Getty Museum of Art. When J.B. asked me which was my favorite painting, I did not hesitate, it is The Penitent Magdalene by Titian (pronounced “TI-shən”).
A little background is necessary before I explain why this work struck me, and why I hope after reading this blog, it will strike you as well. Mary Magdalene was a beloved figure for Renaissance artists, yet the church’s teaching on her was, to say the least, muddled. In A.D. 591, Pope Gregory the Great, possibly not the best student of Scripture, preached a sermon in which he combined 3 New Testament women into one. Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2, Mark 16:9), the sinful woman (the sin being prostitution) who anointed Jesus' feet and washed them with her tears (Luke 7:36-50), and the Mary of Bethany who was the sister of Lazarus & Martha (John 11:2, 12:3) all became the same person! This error persisted through the centuries, and it became the story most people believed. The great Italian Renaissance painter, Titian (1487–1576), was under this erroneous impression as well. Hopefully this is not too confusing. If it is then just think of the woman pictured not as Mary Magdalene but the sinful woman in Luke 7.
This painting was so popular that Titian made several copies of this painting, but the one featured here was the one he kept in his studio. Let me state up front that staring at a photograph of a work of art is not even close to seeing it up close, displayed in a museum. But even so, if you will slow down and look at the picture, I think you will see why it was and is so popular.
First, look at her outfit. She is still dressed provocatively, which signifies her sinful profession. Yet, look at how she is beginning to cover herself. Something has happened. The Word of God lays open before her. I like to think this Bible symbolizes Jesus. She has had a personal encounter with Jesus, the Living Word. Now I say “had,” because her tear-filled eyes are not directed down but up toward heaven. I believe the truth and grace of the Lord’s message has moved her to repentance, and now she is gratefully and humbly basking in forgiveness.
The artist has told us about her past & present but he has more to say about her future. She came in darkness (left side) but she will leave into the light (right side). There is one object left, an unbroken alabaster jar of perfume. She will leave this place and worship Jesus with her tears, her hair, and her heirloom perfume in an anointing for the ages. The painting anticipates this spiritual act of service.
I’m sure you’ve been here like I have. My shame before me, I come to the Lord through the truth of His word. Owning my sin against Him, I cry out in repentance. He, in His amazing, costly grace, lovingly forgives and restores. I’m taken from darkness to light. How can I not worship the Lord with my life as I’m covered with mercy and grace? The Penitent Magdalene is meant to be a mirror as much as a painting where we can see ourselves in the picture of unmerited grace purchased by Christ at the cross.