Mary Magdalene is one of the more debated figures from the Bible. Scholars are constantly discussing her origin, relics, and death. The only woman referenced more in the Bible than Magdalene was Jesus’s family, so it’s no surprise that she has drawn so much attention.
Today, we’ll explain who we know she is, who she may be, what her relics are, and why she is depicted with a skull, cross, or both in artwork that depicts her. Once we understand all of this, we may begin to unravel the meanings of the art she appears in. Let’s begin by explaining who she was.
According to the gospels of the Bible, Mary Magdalene had a few possible origins. She may have been a pious woman who may have gone on to become the wife of Jesus, though it is hotly debated about whether Jesus married anyone at all, she may have been a sex worker, or she may have been a reformed sex worker.
Some legends even portrayed her as a rich woman. Ultimately, many believe she was a sex worker, with some believing her to be reformed. This idea is helped by the fact that she was cleansed of “seven demons,” though many see this as her being cured of an ailment as opposed to being freed from evil or sin. However, many view this portrayal to be harmful to women.
An important thing to note about Magdalene’s life is that she witnessed both Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. She was actually located near the cross, where Jesus’s mother stood by an unnamed Apostle. For this reason, some art depicts her as upset and crying. Later on, she traveled with two other women to anoint the corpse, only to discover an empty tomb.
Shortly after she informed Saint Peter, Jesus appeared to her and told her to spread the word of his ascension to God. What happened to her after this is debated by scholars.
Her death is just as debated as her life. Before her passing, we know she was told to spread the word of Jesus’s ascension, so it is likely that she did this and also went on to spread the word of God wherever she went. Where exactly she died and was buried is ultimately unknown, but two countries have attempted to lay claims to it.
A rumor claims that she had died and been buried in France. Eventually, the monks from the Vezelay Abbey of la Madeleine claimed they had discovered her skeleton. Later, the bones were excavated, and the king of France venerated them.
However, a little over a decade later, the King of Naples, Charles II, excavated another location, which may have also been Mary Magdalene’s burial site. An intact shrine was found that held an inscription that stated why her relics had been hidden away. A gothic basilica was built on the site and became more popular than that of the Abbey.
Now that we understand who Mary Magdalene was and the mystery surrounding her death, we must discuss her relics. The most iconic one is her skull, which can be seen today in the Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene. There are more, such as a lock of hair and her other bones, though some of these may be missing.
While this seems unimportant, it must be understood before we discuss why she may be depicted in paintings holding a skull and a cross and what these could mean.
The symbolism of Mary Magdalene holding a skull is a common thing to find when looking at art of her. Another unsurprising find is that she tends to also hold a cross, though the fact that many pieces depict her holding both at the same time may feel jarring. There are a few possible reasons for this, though you must first understand the symbolism of each item.
As you may have guessed, skulls usually symbolize death. While the relation to Magdalene may seem loose at best at first, there are many reasons why she, of all people, would be carrying a symbol of death. A loose theory is that she is sometimes stated to anoint Jesus’s feet with oils. This understanding of her, however, is flawed as it accidentally confuses at least one woman with Magdalene when they are viewed separately in modern beliefs.
The confusion was common in the past, however. While she didn’t anoint Jesus’s feet, she discovered his empty tomb on her way to anoint his body. To anoint means to rub with oil, and this is typically done during religious ceremonies. She was on her way to perform a ceremony with Jesus’s corpse before discovering that he had been resurrected.
The third theory is that she was one of the few people he was close to who were present for his crucifixion and subsequent death. It is possible that Mary Magdalene holding a skull is to represent that she was present for the death of Jesus. The popularity of the skull, in particular, may have come from it being displayed at one of her possible burial sites.
The symbolism of the cross she tends to hold is equally as important as the skull, though it is all too often overlooked. It symbolizes the Christian faith, which means it symbolizes justification and sanctification, or to be made righteous before God and to grow in holiness. Mary Magdalene does just that in the gospel, especially if you believe her to be reformed.
In short, when Mary Magdalene holds a skull, she is holding death, as the death of Christ was something she witnessed and held with her as she spread the word of his resurrection. After all, one can not be resurrected without first dying. The cross she holds is a symbol of her faith, something she held dearly and spread wherever she could.
While her history is debated greatly, one thing is certain: she has become one of the most important figures in the Christian faith and is a popular topic for artists everywhere. Hopefully, now you’ll understand the art of Mary Magdelin a bit better the next time you see it.