Da Vinci's Code

Professor Christopher Witcombe, Art History


Mary Magdalen's Jar

EXCERPT FROM: Witcombe, "The Shifting Identity of Mary Magdalen in the Renaissance," Paper, Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, 1993

In many ways, Mary Magdalen is the most accessible of the female saints, a real human being, unlike the lofty, remote and far too pure and unreal Virgin Mary. Part of her appeal, to be sure, resides in her embodying a fundamental female identity, which may be very ancient. Her principal attribute is the ointment pot or jar. The vessel, however, can also appear as a vase or a monstrance.

Mary Magdalen
c. 1530
(Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Scorel (Jan Gossaert)
Lady Portrayed as Mary Magdalen
c. 1520
(Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp)

Luca Signorelli
Mary Magdalen
(Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Orvieto)

Rogier van der Weyden
Mary Magdalen
c. 1450
Braque Family Triptych (right wing)
(Musée du Louvre, Paris)

An ancient Neo-Sumerian statue shows a woman, perhaps a goddess, holding a jar, or a vase, or a chalice, out of which flows water. Held at waist-level, the vessel appears symbolic of the female vagina and thereby also a metaphor for female sexuality and power.

Standing female figure with a vase. Neo-Sumerian (c. 1800 BCE), from Mari.

The image of Mary Magdalen removing the lid of the vessel is an especially potent symbol.

Bernardino Luini
Mary Magdalen
c. 1525
(National Gallery of Art
Washington, DC)

Quentin Massys (Metsys)
Mary Magdalen
c. 1520 ?
(Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp)

Ambrosius Benson
Mary Magdalen
c. 1520 ?
(Groeninge Museum, Bruges)

The action of removing the lid we recognize as belonging also to Psyche and Pandora.

John William Waterhouse, Psyche Opening the Golden Box, 1903 (Private Collection)

John William Waterhouse, Pandora Opening the Box, c. 1898 (Private Collection)

Its association with the ancient mythic female principle is perhaps one of the clues to the enduring appeal of Mary Magdalen; and it is also the unacknowledged motif around which have been shaped the various myths and legends that have been attached to this woman over the centuries.

Chauncey B. Ives, Pandora, 1858 (Huntington Library, San Marino, California)

Anonymous, Mary Magdalen Bourbonais, late 15th century, Church of Saint-Pierre, Montlucon

The jar, vase, pot, or chalice, is the source of life, but also the source of evil for men.

Jean Cousin, Eve Prima Pandora, c. 1550 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

The figure in Jean Cousin's painting was based upon a now-lost image of Mary Magdalen. Eve/Pandora/Mary Magdalen reclines nude with one hand on a skull, the other on her jar. A snake, an ancient symbol of the Goddess, entwines her left arm in the way one sees in images of Isis.

The garbled Biblical account of a female follower of Christ barely conceals to the perceptive eye a woman of immense importance.