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Penny Howell Jolly, Picturing the ‘Pregnant’ Magdalene in Northern Art, 1430-1550: Addressing and Undressing the Sinner-Saint (Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2014). ISBN: 978-1-4724-1495-3, 290 pp. £58.50.

Reviewed by Helen F. Smith

HS

[1] In Picturing the ‘Pregnant’ Magdalene in Northern Art, 1430-1550, Penny Howell Jolly examines a fascinating aspect of the portrayal of Mary Magdalene during late-medieval and early modern visual culture: the metaphor of her spiritual pregnancy. The idea for the book was conceived in response to her students’ curiosity about the lady of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Double Portrait, in which (to their modern eyes) she appears to be pregnant. Having noticed similarities between the Arnolfini lady and depictions of Mary Magdalene, it is in the endeavour to explore this trait of Mary’s presentation that Jolly considers the changing cultural significations of pregnancy, the female body and representations of the body of Mary Magdalene, in over one hundred years of art history.

[2] As a sinner-saint Mary Magdalene is a complex, ambiguous, and multivalent figure to explore. Yet, whilst the cult of Mary Magdalene has already been widely examined throughout the humanities, the visual metaphors of the saint’s spiritual pregnancy is an angle of inquiry that has been ignored by the academic community. The depiction of Mary Magdalene in northern art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries also represents another area that is worthy of greater scholarly attention than it has received to date. It is in this respect that Jolly’s book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of women and gender in art history, as well as late-medieval and early modern cultural devotion to Mary Magdalene.

[3] In Chapter One, Jolly begins her journey of enquiry with Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. This image, which was commissioned in 1435, features what is believed to be the earliest example of Mary Magdalene with maternity laces on her clothing. It was the most widely copied image of the saint in its time. The artistic tradition of portraying Mary Magdalene as spiritually pregnant begins with this painting. Throughout the chapter, the author considers the complex significations of van der Weyden’s Descent, placing her analysis in the context of previous research. In this image, the pregnancy of Mary Magdalene is considered to symbolise her rebirth and renewal in terms of her moral and spiritual transformation. Mary’s ‘pregnant’ body is concurrently a symbol of her redemption and the carnality of her sin. Jolly supports these interpretations with a range of medieval sources, including the twelfth century Vita Beatae Mariae Magdalenae et Soraris ejus Sanctae Martha and the late-medieval Digby play of Mary Magdalene, both of which use the metaphor of fertility in the narrative of the saint’s spiritual transformation.

[4] The focus of the second chapter is van der Weyden’s Braque Triptych (ca. 1452). As Jolly continues to investigate the duality and contradiction in the significations of Mary’s body, she argues that the representation of the saint in this triptych is as a Wise and Foolish Virgin simultaneously. The Wise and Foolish Virgins feature in the Parable of the Ten Virgins from the Gospel of Matthew. Within the parable, ten virgins await the appearance of the bridegroom at a wedding, but only the five Wise Virgins have brought enough oil for their lamps. As the five Foolish Virgins have to depart to acquire more oil, the bridegroom arrives. Consequently, the Foolish Virgins are too late to join the celebrations. The lesson of the parable is to be prepared for the Day of Judgement. As a Wise Virgin, Mary Magdalene is spiritually pregnant in her identity as a Bride of Christ, an interpretation that Jolly takes from the opening laces of Mary’s clothing. The author also explores visual similarities between this image of Mary Magdalene and depictions of the Wise Virgins elsewhere in visual culture, such as a tympanum (ca. 1285-1300) from Freiburg Cathedral. This image of Mary Magdalene depicts her holding a jar of ointment, in a posture that echoes the Wise Virgins holding their oil lamps and Ecclesia (a female personification of the Church) holding a chalice. Significantly, the oil lamps and chalice are in direct alignment with Mary’s jar within the tympanum. Since the lamps of the Wise Virgins burn with caritas, Jolly uses literary evidence of Mary’s connections with charity to support her argument. For instance, in the Digby Mary Magdalene, which dates from the late fifteenth to early sixteenth century, Mary displays her charity by washing the feet of Christ. Conversely, Jolly argues that Mary Magdalene can be interpreted as a Foolish Virgin in van der Weyden’s Braque Triptych because her lavish clothing provides a visual suggestion of her vanitas and sinful past. The suggestion of Mary’s sinfulness is therefore an indication of the fact that Mary, like the Foolish Virgins, is not prepared for the Day of Judgement.

[5] Artistic representations of Mary Magdalene do not begin and end with her own body. In her third chapter, Jolly discusses Quentin Massys’ Mary Magdalene Opening Her Jar (ca. 1515-1525), in addition to other works of art that imitate Mary Magdalene and symbolically allude to her identity, such as Bernard van Orley’s Margaret of Austria as the Magdalene (ca. 1520), which displays Margaret of Austria opening a jar in imitation of the saint. Over the course of this chapter, Jolly considers the market niches of such works of art, the value they had to their owners, and how images of Mary Magdalene begin to adapt in accordance with contemporaneous expressions of religious devotion and changes within society and culture. Jolly outlines that cultural standards of the ideal female body had changed by the time of the sixteenth century. Instead of rounder or ‘large-bellied’ women, the slender female body dressed in fitted clothing prevailed as the ideal, which meant that the roundness of the womb became a more conclusive symbol of pregnancy in early modern visual culture. The fashions of this period, such as the lacing of overgowns at the back (rather than the front and sides), also affected artistic traditions of pregnancy, as Jolly discusses in relation to the Virgin Mary. These cultural changes, in turn, affected artistic representations of Mary Magdalene. Thus, for instance, in Massys’ depiction of Mary Magdalene Opening Her Jar, Mary’s open jar of ointment takes on the symbolism of her ‘spiritual’ womb.

[6] The fourth chapter is another in which the symbolism of the spiritual pregnancy of Mary Magdalene is examined and discussed beyond the realms of her physical body. Moving into the art of the 1520s and 1530s, Jolly devotes her attention to the numerous paintings of Jan van Hemessen that depict Mary Magdalene performing music, and she considers the responses of Catholic and nascent Protestant audiences to these works of art. In these images, such as Mary Magdalene with a Lute (ca. 1530-1530), Jolly explains how playing the lute could connote sensual love, and that the shape of the instrument could signify the pregnant womb through its roundness as well as its opening. Yet, even the lute could be a complex and multivalent symbol in sixteenth century art, for it could signal desire as well as fertility and pregnancy, therefore continuing to represent Mary’s duality as a sinner-saint.

[7] In the fifth and final chapter of her book, Jolly examines the portrayal of the melancholic Magdalene in the work of Flemish artists, Adriaen Isenbrant and the ‘Half-length Master’, during the sixteenth century. The images produced by these artists continued to innovate the iconography of Mary Magdalene by situating her portrayal within a wider landscape, allowing the viewer to focus on different areas of the painting such as the wilderness narrative in the saint’s hagiography. These landscape images of Mary Magdalene also portray the saint with a melancholic posture, mourning for the absent Christ. The focus on Mary Magdalene’s body changes once again in the work of these artists, with the exposed flesh and breasts of Mary Magdalene’s body on display either openly or through her diaphanous clothing. Jolly speculates that this is perhaps due to a conflation of the hagiographical narratives of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt, although she offers alternative interpretations. The eremitical grotto of Mary Magdalene’s wilderness narrative in these images is itself another symbol of her spiritually pregnant womb.

[8] In Picturing the ‘Pregnant’ Magdalene in Northern Art, 1430-1550, Penny Howell Jolly makes a convincing argument that the visual symbolism of Mary Magdalene’s spiritual pregnancy is a consistent and evolving feature of Northern Renaissance art. One of Jolly’s great strengths throughout this work is her ability to comprehend and explain the complexity of signification within art history, and its capacity to subtly change meaning over time, even whilst, simultaneously, specific artists continue to allude to van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross in repeating his motifs. Jolly uses a formidable range of resources in the endeavour to support her claims, drawing upon the literature and drama of the Northern Renaissance as well as its art, thereby demonstrating the interconnections between these different mediums in terms of the complex significations of the body of Mary Magdalene. Whilst the idea that images of jars, lutes, and caves, were used as visual substitutes for Mary Magdalene’s ‘spiritual womb’ may seem tenuous, Jolly’s astute observations and carefully-considered evidence leave the reader firmly convinced in the validity of her interpretations.

[9] Illustrated throughout with colour and black and white images of oil paintings, manuscript paintings, triptychs and tympanums, this is an enjoyable and intellectually stimulating read and an accomplished and valuable contribution to the field.

University of Edinburgh, June, 2014