A recent visit with very dear friends of mine
to the exhibit entitled,
Artemisia Gentileschi:
The Story of a Passion
, in Milan's Palazzo
Reale, made me see the usual "penitent"
Mary Magdalene in a whole new way.
When my small group arrived before this
particular masterpiece in the gallery, painted
by the 17th-century artist, Artemisia, during
her sojourn in Florence around 1615, one of
the ladies in the group, visibly moved to tears
by the work, exclaimed, "This is the reason I
came to the show!" For several minutes there,
in the dark gallery, Brigit sobbed softly.
And I thought later that if Brigit  had not
been so sincere in her avowal of emotion, I
might have passed on and hardly looked at
this beautiful Maddalena -- my own ideas too
Toroazul Painting and Fine Arts
   Artemisia's Mary Magdalene:
"She chose the best part."
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Mary Magdalene
Artemisia Gentileschi
oil on canvas
circa  1615
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much preconditioned by the well-known series of Judiths decapitating the tyrant
Holofernes, which one readily identifies with this Roman-born painter, contemporary of
the likes of Caravaggio and Galileo, to name but a few.
In fact, Gentileschi repeatedly painted this Biblical story from the book of Judith, art
historians insist, in order to exorcize the violence she suffered as a 16-year-old girl, just
as she began her young career as a painter (unheard of in those days, for a woman!), in
the workshop of her famous father, Orazio Gentileschi. As all sorts of Roman law records
of the time attest, painter Agostino Tossi, a younger colleague of her father, as well as
expert in perspective, forced Artemisia over and over again to have intercourse with him,
and in some ways tried to block her path as artist both emotionally and socially.
Therefore, it is indeed possible by way of the Holofernes canvases to do an
autobiographical "reading" of this woman's brave insistence on becoming a respected
artist, but especially of her obsession of somehow transforming her great inner sorrow
into something she could exorcise. "Processing," we would say nowadays, is what she
was doing as she painted one after another and another, her decapitations of the tyrant
Holofernes.  
However, I must confess that  Brigit's emotional reaction to the Magdalene portrait
disclosed to me what I think is an equally important series of insights into Artemisia's
story of a passion. I would also venture to say that this particular representation of Mary
Magdalene could indeed teach us all a few things about the powers of growth we all
harbor inside us -- although they be usually written off as reasons for defeat. Powers of a
darker sort.
Ironically a timely Facebook post by a cousin in Miami helped me see just how important
this other theme from Artemisia's repertoire was -- over and above her signature scenes
of Judith killing the tyrant. My cousin posted in Facebook this quote by Anais Nin:   "We
don't see things as they are. We see them as we are" --  Anais Nin.  
Judith decapitating
Holofernes
Artemisia Gentileschi
oil on canvas
circa  1612
The pose of the (we would now say) heavy-set Maria
Maddalena in the work that called Brigit to Milan to see
the show -- and to sob disconsolately -- reminds one of a
great operatic soprano singing her own aria of
abandonment in music of the 1600s or 1700s. First of all,
the woman is gazing at us most directly and theatrically.
Moreover, her regal size and elegance illustrate writer
Stendhal's observation in his Promenades of Rome, about
how the aesthetic of large ladies in high art such as opera
or even paintings by Rubens, corresponds perfectly well
to great passions. Anyway, Artemisia's operatic
Magdalene elegantly plays the part of a tragic lady as
though on a elegant stage, as she sings her story and
gestures with her two hands in
order to better express her meaning. With one hand she takes our eyes to her heart, and
with the other ... to a mirror somewhat removed from her, perhaps, set on the table
behind her wonderful golden dress.    On the upper frame edge of the mirror in
Gentileschi's canvas, which by the way shows Mary's face in profile, blond curls,
earring, and all, appears a Latin quote that Artemisia wanted us to read:
                             ----      "Optimam  partem elegit"      ---
taken from the gospel of St. Luke, where Jesus tells Mary's sister, Martha, how Mary had
"chosen the better part"---by not being as hard-working and practical as Martha, who
during Jesus' visit to their home is restlessly doing-doing-doing, while Mary simply sits
at the side of their visiting Savior.  Traditionally, this same gospel scene and the words
of Jesus have been interpreted to refer to the practical VS. the conservative life, much like
Leah and Rebecca in other Biblical passages illustrate the same idea. But I see another
level of meaning.
And this is where my cousin's quote by Anais Nin came to help me articulate one of the
possible layers embedded into this canvas. "We do not see things as they are. We see
them as we are." In a way, Nin's phrase denies the so-called objectivity of seeing things
as they "are." Instead, I would suggest, we see them precisely through the image we have
of ourselves. Through subjectivity, we arrive at objectivity. This can come from
considering as though in images the story of our lives and passions --- often painful
recollections --- or perhaps through paintings that speak to us or move us to tears
because of what they reflect to us. In some way, then,  Artemisia's Mary Magdalene is
saying something to us about the role played in her life by her image of self. With an
almost soft, feminine effort, the Mary of this canvas who "chose the better part"  would
seem to be pushing the mirror reflection of herself away from the center of the picture.
But I do not see her gesture as one of downright rejection of vanity. The way I see her,
Mary's hand is avowing this part of herself. She is absolutely and tenderly connected to
it, though, in fact, the mirror is in the tenebrous regions of the composition. (In fact,
slightly to the left of the mirror and further back, there is the shadowy presence of a skull,
gazing frontally at us! Traditionally, most Mary Magdalenes are painted in
contemplation of a skull -- symbolic of the vanity of her life before she decides to change
her ways and follow Jesus, repentantly.)
But then we come to the other hand in the canvas  -- her right hand, placed in the very
center of the rectangular composition. First, from that very spot of the heart originates
the other hand that pushes the mirror away softly. But more importantly, with the same
amount of intensity or tension, purely soft, this right hand cups the woman's heart. Her
passion. And together, the two hands together, complete the picture, and spell out just
how Artemisia repented. More than a repentance, which is a negative word, in
Artemisia's telling of the story, Mary Magdalene's is a choice. She chooses, with the two
hands separately and yet together, "the best part."
It occurs to me that what could seem to us as theatrical in either  Gentileschi's operatic
Magdalene, dressed to the T's in all that splendid gold that glows from her canvas's
"chiaroscuro," is not unlike my friend Brigit's also theatrical moment of tears when she
made my group of travelers to one of Milan's great palazzos stop and witness her sobs of
emotion. On a deeper yet similarly respectful level, though, it also all goes back to the
great metaphor of life and even the story of Christ's passion, as a theater, and of the parts
that we players play in it -- to quote the likes of Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Calderon de
la Barca, to name but a few. It is about choosing the better part to play, literally, and
realizing that when we are on the stage, we must somehow look directly at our audience,
just as Artemisia's blonde Magdalene does. In addition, like her, we must not
underestimate the power of expression and, especially, of choice that we have in our two
hands, for they link our gaze and our stance with  what is in our heart and what is in our
side stories of passions, which very much are an integral part of the part we play in our
world picture.