Scala/Art Resource, NY

“Do not despair if you have sinned. Follow my example and make your peace with God!” reads the banner held by Mary Magdalene in this late-13th-century panel painting from the Galleria Accademia in Florence, Italy. Mary Magdalene plays a small but critical role in the gospels. A close disciple of Jesus, she witnesses his crucifixion and burial, and is one of the first to arrive at the empty tomb; in the Gospel of John, the risen Jesus appears first to her (John 20:14).

Mary Magdalene’s role is greatly expanded in the noncanonical Gospel of Mary, where she is a leader and teacher of the other, male disciples. Peter begs Mary Magdalene: “We know the Savior loved you more than any other woman. Tell us the words of the Savior that you know but we haven’t heard.”

Mary’s body is swathed in her own hair in this painting by an artist known only as the Magdalene Master. According to medieval legend, Mary Magdalene did penance for her earlier life as a prostitute by living as a hermit in the Egyptian desert. Over time, her clothes turned ragged, but her hair grew long enough to cover her body. The legend is the result of the Magdalene’s story being conflated with that of St. Mary of Egypt, a repentant prostitute who lived in the desert.

Eight smaller scenes depict key events in Mary Magdalene’s life. They also attest to a long tradition of conflating Mary Magdalene with other characters. She is often identified with Mary the sister of Martha (Luke 10:40) and of Lazarus, and the top right scene depicts her as a witness at the raising of her “brother” (John 11:1–45). She is also identified with the unnamed prostitute who anoints Jesus’ feet during a meal in the home of a Pharisee (Mark 14:3–9), as depicted at top left. Below that, Mary Magdalene greets the risen Jesus in the garden (John 20:15). Opposite this scene, Mary is shown preaching in Marseilles, France. According to medieval legend, “unbelievers,” hoping to drown Mary Magdalene, forced her to leave the Holy Land on a boat without pilot or rudder. Miraculously, the boat landed on the French coast, where Mary introduced the populace to Jesus’ word.

The four bottom scenes are borrowed from the life of St. Mary of Egypt: Magdalene is lifted to the heavens by angels for daily prayers (left, third from top), fed by an angel in the desert (right, third from top), given her last communion (lower left) and buried (lower right).