Martha and Mary Magdalene

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Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene, 1598


Mary Magdalene is often seen as the woman lamenting over the feet of Christ. Although in Caravaggio’s depiction of the young women she resembles a well put together socialite, not a grieving widow. A woman before her life was changed by God. Caravaggio, not one to fuss around with titles, simply called the painting Martha and Mary Magdalene. Despite the ordinary name, through Martha and Mary Magdalene Caravaggio intimately captures a moment between two sisters as they debate the meaning of life. 

He draws the viewer in the with blockly table, exposing the slightly run down corner on the left to demonstrate the wear and tear of the space Martha and Mary Magdalene occupy. Additionally he brings the viewer’s gaze upwards with the lacks of objects on the table. Caravaggio closes off the left-side of the paintings with Martha’s attire. His use heavy draping mimics the background and table, demonstrating how Martha exists as part of the scene, part of the world with the worn down corners. 

Mary Magdalene represents the opposite with her ornate dress, with the heavy beading on her bodice in comparison to her sister’s simpleton dress. Despite different styles, Caravaggio's parallels the sister’s bond in the the red hues that fall of their left shoulders. Although here by painting Martha’s red slighter duller and without elaborate folding, Caravaggio references Martha’s maturity and responsibility. While Mary’s vibrant red cloth hints at life just being, a red not yet tarnished or dulled by time, but awaiting it’s arrival into the world. Caravaggio continues this theme with the green hues as well, juxtaposing the Mary vibrancy with Martha's dullness. 

Despite the lack of blood and violence in Martha and Mary Magdalene, Caravaggio still creates immense tension regarding the bond between the two. According to the New Testament story, this scene depicts Martha attempting to convert Mary Magdalene to follow Jesus Christ. Through Martha’s open palms, one feels her desperation and with Mary Magdalene’s gnarled fingers one feels her anxiety and fear of the unknown. 

Martha’s openness indicates her lack of fear, while Mary Magdalene’s desperate clutch on the flower in her hand and attachment to the mirror to her right represents a fear of letting go. Mary Magdalene’s right hand hovers above the light source of the painting which stems from the a slightly off centered point in the mirror. Mary points to this unknown source of light, asking to her sister, "Is this glimpse of light God?" Martha's upward glance of the head toward Mary and the light confirms Mary's beliefs. Yet do they agree? 

Caravaggio uses different lines of sight for the two women to represent a disconnect between the two, to demonstrate that despite the obvious similarities between the two women a spiritual connection is nonexistent. 

I love the intimacy of the painting, the feelings that I am invading a private moment between two sisters and questioning whether I should slowly tip toe out the backdoor. Caravaggio does not need blood to make the viewer uncomfortable. By making you feel as if you have intruded on something, Caravaggio makes you feel a part of something more important than yourself. 

Caravaggio takes religious figures outside of heaven to relate them to his people of Rome. For God acts the same on the filthy streets of Rome as he does in the most prestigious rooms of Vatican. In the case of Caravaggio perhaps his desire to see everyone on his level, relates back to his lack of title and sufficient funds. Caravaggio proves how little pedigree matters by ripping God out of the heavens and placing him in a darkly lit room, home to the ordinary. 

I charge you to look at Martha and Mary Magdalene without thinking of the biblical story or title, think about two women just talking about life, weighing out wealth and fulfillment, just trying to figure out their place in this great big world. For in the eyes of Caravaggio, we peasants are the models of God. Caravaggio forces you to recognize your humanity head on. It’s time get your head out of those gold trimmed clouds and let the dark Earth engulf you.

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