‘The Magdalen Reading’ by Rogier van der Weyden, circa 1435-38.
A visitor to the Library today asked who is the person in the large framed print near the main entrance. “It is Mary Magdalene,” I replied. “She is doing what she would do. See! She reads a book of hours in a state of complete beatitude. She is looking upon the beauty of Christ.”
Amused by the incongruity of a first century Galilean Jewish woman from Roman Palestine sitting wearing gorgeous green garments in a Dutch apartment sometime in the late Middle Ages, the visitor and her friend took a closer look. Perhaps the idea of anyone like Mary Magdalene reading a book was enough to make them question their own assumptions. Books of this kind were developed some time after the composition of the Gospels. A woman like Mary Magdalene was not a noblewoman from the Netherlands and would not have been addressed in the Greek or Aramaic equivalent of Princess. Actually, we don’t know if Mary Magdalene was by status a noblewoman, but it is unlikely.
“The painting is in the National Gallery in London,” I advised. “It is called ‘The Magdalen Reading’ and is by Rogier van der Weyden.” This information seemed mere information to the visitors, who were now noting closely the fact that the other figures in the painting have been, if not airbrushed, then certainly sectioned out of the picture. No one seems to know for certain why this is, except that the work in the National Gallery is a fragment of what was a larger altarpiece painted in oils. Catalogues claim it was completed “circa 1435-38”. The visitors seemed satisfied that the woman was in a state of contemplation and could therefore, hypothetically at least, be Mary Magdalene. That this particular painting stands at the entrance to a theological library seemed fairly logical.
The staff of the Carmelite Library live with this painting week in, week out. If you had to choose one painting to live with every day in your workplace, you could do a lot worse than Rogier van der Weyden. We know she is who she is because of the jar of ointment in the foreground, a traditional symbol for Mary Magdalene. It would be good to know if her green clothing has any symbolic significance. Apparently the people excised in part from the picture are, standing, Joseph with rosary and, kneeling, Saint Catherine of Alexandria probably, who enjoyed one of the greatest of all medieval saintly cults. We know this because, while Mary Magdalene is in London, Joseph and Catherine are in Lisbon. The original altarpiece constituted a sacra conversazione, a genre of late medieval painting in which the Virgin and Child are surrounded by a group of saints. It is out of this tradition of painting that we have later what are called conversation pieces, i.e. informal group portraits, normally of people we would not describe as saints. Hence the expression ‘conversation piece’, like the print at the door of the Library that, by chance, may prompt discussion.
All of which leaves us with certain overwhelming questions.
What is the book? It looks like a book of hours from the period. The pages have two columns of close calligraphic script, with red letters at the head of paragraphs. The book has gold clasps. Books of hours contained selections from Scripture and Tradition intended to concentrate the mind and body upon the greatness of God, his blessed Son Christ, and the mighty power of the Spirit. The viewer is expected to identify with Mary Magdalene, as she, or even he, sits in her chamber doing likewise, concentrating on the greatness of God, his blessed Son Christ, and the mighty power of the Spirit.
Why is Mary Magdalene, a person not famed for her reading habits, reading? She reads the story told by all those who knew Christ, the reality ever before her eyes. Just as those who read the books of hours now, in the bright interior light of 1430’s Holland, recover the Word each time they engage with their holy words. She leads by example.
Why is Mary Magdalene, a peer in age, present in a painting of the birth of Christ? Because Christ is Alpha and Omega, just as he is to the Magi and the old folk in the Temple at age 12 and the Forerunner in the River. Just as he is to anyone who would be present at his incarnation.
Why is she wearing green? To symbolise life renewed. She is first witness to the Resurrection, life brought back from death. She wears life renewed, has taken it on and is at peace in this clothing.