Monday, May 22, 2006

Pregnant Mary Magdalene common in old paintings


Catholics and Protestants alike are all a-tizzy over the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene might have conceived a child. Some call it a "warmed-over heresy," others claim it's some new idea aimed at toppling Christianity from its foundation.

The idea of a pregnant Mary Magdalene isn't new. Many celebrated painters of the Renaissance and Baroque Era painted her as pregnant.

Note that nearly all these representations of Mary Magdalene show her with an alibaster box or vessel. Traditionally the vessel is the container of salve used to annoint Jesus after his Resurrection. It is also associated with Mary of Bethany, whom some consider to be the same woman as Mary Magdalene, Jesus's wife.

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This is an oft-cited canard that has been around at least since Margaret Starbird's first book in 1993. What is happening is that people are misinterpreting what they see in these paintings as pregnancy when in fact they reflect only popular styles of the time, or a preference by the artist to depict women with large abdomens. If you compare such paintings with others of their era, from the same culture and from the same artist, I'm confident you will find several other non-Mary Magdalene examples that look very similar. In some cases I've found paintings of famous virgin saints (such as Catherine) depicted with enormous abdomens!

Just my $.02 worth. It would be good to try to consider these images in the context of the time and place where they were produced.
You've found paintings of virgin saints that appear pregant, yet you assume that artists of the time just liked painting non-pregnant women with big bellies because, uh, because why?

Perhaps they chose to paint these particular women with big bellies because there was something notable about them, like, they were pregnant but not expected to be!

Sure, that's possible, but this extends beyond religious figures, even to anonymous women. It has been documented well by art and fashion historians that during certain periods in certain places, corpulant figures and distended abdomens (as well as other strange things like plucked hairlines and very long feet) were fashionable.

You can see what you wish to see, but that doesn't mean it's what the artist intended.
Some painters such as Caravaggio and Hugo van der Goes included OTHER hints besides the belly.

In my article, "Beyond the Lost Caravaggio," I talk about two such paintings.

In the first, "The Penitent Magdalene," Caravaggio depicts Mary with her hands placed as though they were cradling an invisible baby, with her jewelry (which a baby might grab) set aside, and with a baby's support cushion on her lap.

In the second, the right panel of "The Portinari Triptych," van der Goes shows St. Margaret of Antioch, the patron saint of pregnant women, standing by Mary's side and looking at Mary's belly.

My article can be read on the "Article's Archive" page of my website. The URL of my home page is as follows:

All Best,

Jeff Nisbet
I get Lesa's point. These artists simply wished to confirm Catholic doctrine. None of them used art to express unorthodox views which would otherwise have condemned them.

I beg to differ.
Baroque artist such as Caravaggio did not idealize their subjects by giving them "fashionable" pregnant bellies, blond hair and blue eyes, or halos with putti flying about.

A favorite obviously pregnant Magdalene:

Georges de La Tour "Magdalen with the Smoking Flame", c. 1640
Oil on canvas, 117 x 92 cm
County Museum of Art, Los Angeles
How ridiculous to think that renaissance painters knew more about it than we doo just because they were 500 years closer. They were still about 1500 years after the fact!

Knights of Templer suposedly protected Jesus/Mary blood line including their son
van der goes depicts Magdalene as a skinny woman who is obviously pregnant in 'the lamantation of christ'.

so the 'chunky was en-vogue during the time period in which the art was made' theory is somewhat idiotic.

very skinny Magdalene with a very pregnant belly. the draping of her robes makes it very apparant where exactly her legs and butt, etc... were. and van der goes Magdalene is an otherwise skinny woman with a very pregnant belly.

some folks knew the truth.

In the Gothic and Renaissance time periods (as in many other eras) the major task of women was to bear and give birth to healthy children. A woman's fertility was as important as her virtue, and therefore clothing was designed and worn to emphasize a woman's belly, even when she was not pregnant. In art, we see this as women from these eras depicted with rounded breasts and bellies, even those who are not pregnant. Therefore, I doubt that most of these pictures of Mary Magdalene are meant to depict her as pregnant; they are merely depicting the fashion and beauty standards of a bygone era.

- Art historian
Please do also keep in mind that many pictures of Mary Magdalene were commissioned by the church. Back in the day, it was considered heresy to claim that Mary Magdalene had a child with Christ. There were thousands of people executed for having this view, so if you painted a Mary Magdalene who was supposed to be carrying Christ's child and the church found out about it, your life was at stake as well as your livelihood.

I am not a Christian myself, and I honestly do not dismiss the possibility that Mary Magdalene might have had an intimate relationship with Christ. However, I do not believe that there were many artists bold enough to express such a (as it was perceived then) heretic notion in their art.

- Art historian
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