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St. Mary Magdalene

St. Mary Magdalene  by Br. Mickey McGrath, OSFS

Artist's Narrative:

Saint Mary Magdalene has long been one of my favorite saints, especially at this stage in life, when I have come to know the pain of grief and the struggle to let go of a loved one who has died. This painting is filled with many symbols which help me understand her better as a soul friend. Mary Magdalene, dressed in purple, holds a wreath of flowers each of which has a centuries-old tradition of symbolic meaning in Christian art.

The flowers of the wreath are arranged like the face of a clock. On the outer edge of the wreath we see FORGET-ME-NOTS placed at the 12,3,6,and 9 o’clock positions. They are symbolic of fidelity in our love for Jesus. PINK CARNATIONS (1,4,7,and10 o’clock positions) are symbols of pure love and the wounds of Jesus. IMPATIENS (2,5,8, and 11 o’clock) are sometimes referred to as “Touch-me-nots” and thus refer to Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter morning: “Do not touch Me, I’ve not yet ascended to the Father.”

On the inner circle of the wreath are PANSIES, symbols of reflectiveness; LILIES, the chief Easter flower and symbol of purity, immortality, and Christ’s Resurrection; and LILIES OF THE VALLEY, sometimes called “Eve’s tears”, which remind us of the fall and redemption of humanity. In the center of the wreath is a WHITE ROSE, another symbol of purity and, since it is opened in full bloom, of the Resurrection. But for all their beauty and fragrance, roses have thorns, reminding us that pain and grace go hand-in-hand. Surrounding the rose is a CROWN OF THORNS for Christ’s passion.

I have also used traditional symbols in numbers, especially six and twelve. SIX is the Christian number for completion because of the six days of creation. There are six varieties of flowers around the circle, and the lilies of the valley are in clusters of six. (The rose in the center makes for SEVEN flower types, seven being day of rest and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.)

The number TWELVE appears frequently as well, reminding us of time. (Twelve numbers on a clock, twelve months in a year.) It is the sacred number of completion and beginning again, such as the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. Saint Mary Magdalene is dressed in PURPLE, a sorrowful color. We see this color in Advent and Lent because it summons us to penance and reflection. Purple reminds us to wait in faithful diligence for the coming of our Incarnate God.

Across the top of the painting are words from Psalm 30 which sum up the theme of this work: “AT NIGHT THERE ARE TEARS, BUT JOY COMES WITH DAWN.” May Saint Mary Magdalene be a source of consolation to you in your grief and a shining example of how to move forward in love and hope.

Her feast day is July 22.

McGrath collection: 
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Except for the mother of Jesus, few women are more honored in the Bible than Mary Magdalene. Yet she could well be the patron of the slandered, since there has been a persistent legend in the Church that she is the unnamed sinful woman who anointed the feet of Jesus in Luke 7:36-50.

Most Scripture scholars today point out that there is no scriptural basis for confusing the two women. Mary Magdalene, that is, “of Magdala,” was the one from whom Christ cast out “seven demons” (Luke 8:2)—an indication, at the worst, of extreme demonic possession or, possibly, severe illness.

Father Wilfrid J. Harrington, O.P., writing in the New Catholic Commentary, says that “seven demons” “does not mean that Mary had lived an immoral life—a conclusion reached only by means of a mistaken identification with the anonymous woman of Luke 7:36.” Father Edward Mally, S.J., writing in the Jerome Biblical Commentary, agrees that she “is not...the same as the sinner of Luke 7:37, despite the later Western romantic tradition about her.”

Mary Magdalene was one of the many “who were assisting them [Jesus and the Twelve] out of their means.” She was one of those who stood by the cross of Jesus with his mother. And, of all the “official” witnesses that might have been chosen for the first awareness of the Resurrection, she was the one to whom that privilege was given. She is known as the "Apostle to the Apostles."


Today’s Gospel (John 20:1–2, 11–18) shows Mary at first not recognizing the risen Jesus in the garden, then knowing him as he spoke her name. Her great love bursts forth, echoing the First Reading, “I took hold of him and would not let him go” (Song 3:4b). Jesus says, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17a). The meaning probably is that there is an entirely new relationship now—a much deeper one, resting in faith rather than the former relationship that was possible because of his visible body. Saint John may also be stressing the fact that Jesus’ exaltation at the right hand of the Father is the completion of the Resurrection.