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The Mystery of Mary Magdalene

"Mary Magdalene" by Frederick Sandys

“Mary Magdalene” by Frederick Sandys

“Mary Magdalene” by Frederick Sandys depicts Mary in front of a patterned forest-green damask. She holds an alabaster ointment cup, a traditional attribute which associates her with the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.

This Pre-Raphaelite 1858-1860 painting by Frederick Sandys is the only figure from the Bible that Sandys ever painted. Like the other Pre-Raphaelite painters, Frederick Sandys gave Magdalene a powerful and sensual look.

Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene was a Jewish woman who traveled with Jesus as one of his early and closest followers and witnessed his crucifixion and burial. She was the first to witness the resurrection of Jesus.

Mary Magdalene is mentioned by name 12 times in the canonical gospels, more than most apostles, and more than any other non-family woman in the Gospels.

Mary’s epithet Magdalene came from the town of Magdala, a fishing town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Mary Magdalene was one of the women who traveled with Jesus and helped support his ministry “out of their resources,” indicating that she was probably relatively wealthy.

Mary Magdalene is a central figure in later Gnostic Christian writings, including the Gospel of Mary, which many scholars attribute to Mary Magdalene.

These texts portray Mary Magdalene as an apostle, as Jesus’s closest and most beloved disciple, and the only one who truly understood his teachings.

The inaccurate portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute began after a series of sermons delivered in 581 AD. Pope Gregory I conflated Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and the unnamed “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’s feet in Luke.

This false portrayal of Mary Magdalene was a significant controversy in the years leading up to the Reformation, and some Protestant leaders rejected it.

Elaborate medieval legends from western Europe describe Mary Magdalene’s wealth and beauty and her alleged sea journey to the Gallo-Roman port center of Marseille, in modern-day southern France.

During the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church continued to use Mary Magdalene as a symbol of penance. However, in 1969, the false portrayal of Mary Magdalene was removed from the General Roman Calendar by Pope Paul VI.

Still, the incorrect view as a former prostitute had been promoted by the Catholic Church for almost 1400 years and has persisted in popular culture.

Mary Magdalene is considered a saint by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches. Some other Protestant churches honor her as a heroine of the faith.

Frederick Sandys

Frederick Sandys (1829 – 1904) was an English painter and illustrator associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and Norwich School of painters.

“Mary Magdalene” is an oil on wood panel painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Frederick Sandys, a disciple of Rossetti, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite.

Sandys specialized in half-length figures of beautiful but often destructive women. Sandys’s meticulous attention to detail is typical of the Pre-Raphaelite school.

Sandys’ images of female beauty are iconic renderings of alluring and mysterious women representing his unique style.

By the early 1860s, he began to exhibit the paintings which set his reputation. The dominant influences on his art were conceptions of tragic power.

The somber intensity and stern beauty in his art meant that his art was not always popular.

Mary Magdalene

  • Painting:            Mary Magdalene
  • Artist:                Frederick Sandys
  • Date:                 1859
  • Medium:           oil on wood panel
  • Style:                 Pre-Raphaelite
  • Dimensions:      Height: 13.2 in (33.6 cm); Width: 11 in (27.9 cm)
  • Museum:          Delaware Art Museum

Frederick Sandys

  • Artist:                  Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys
  • Born:                   Antonio Frederic Augustus Sands
  • Born:                   1829, Norwich, England
  • Died:                   1904 (aged 75), Kensington, London, England
  • Nationality:         English
  • Movement:         Pre-Raphaelites and with the Norwich School of painters.
  • Notable works:

María Magdalena

Who was Mary Magdalene?

A Virtual Tour of Pre-Raphaelite Artists

John Everett Millais

William Holman Hunt

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

John William Waterhouse

Marie Spartali Stillman

Ford Madox Brown

Henry Holiday

Edward Burne-Jones

Frederick Sandys

Mary Magdalene (Why You Cryin)

Mary of Bethany Meets Jesus


“Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord'”
– John 20:18


Photo Credit: Frederick Sandys / Public domain

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