Easter, Eggs, and Mary Magdalene

 

Mary Magdalene, an icon by Robert Lentz

 

Artists help us see, intuit, and understand in not always rational ways. In my view, this does not uniquely qualify or disqualify their work. Instead, it challenges us to try to see more perceptively what we apprehend, what moves us, and what prompts us to make assertions regarding the truth-value of what we have visually and conceptually encountered.

Over the years, I have purchased a number of wood-mounted reproductions of icons by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM. I continue to value his ability, spiritual perception, and sensibility in sharing with us insights about the holiness and character of many of those whom he has portrayed. Many of his portrayals are stylistically highly refined (see his two images of Julian of Norwich, or his James Lloyd Breck) while he takes a more playful approach with certain other historical figures (e.g., Simone Weil or Damian of Molokai). Examples of the latter have led some to criticize Lentz for not strictly adhering to traditional Eastern Orthodox practice when creating his icons.

Lentz’s vocation has been as a friar and follower of St. Francis, whose life and subsequent Franciscan Order bequeathed to us the tradition of Christmas creches in churches. Lentz’s humanistic regard for so many facets of our experience, as illustrated in the lives of those he has chosen as subjects for his work, has fit well with his Franciscan tradition. His icons have much to teach us, for he has sought through sacred art to communicate what he perceives to be biblical and spiritual truth.

One icon so fitting for this Easter week is Lentz’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene. It has been noted that,

according to the ancient tradition of the East, Mary Magdalene was a wealthy woman from whom Christ expelled seven “demons.”  During the three years of Jesus’ ministry, she helped support Him and His other disciples with her money.  When almost everyone else fled, she stayed with Him at the cross.  On Easter morning she was the first to bear witness to His resurrection.  She is called “Equal to the Apostles.”

After the Ascension, she journeyed to Rome where she was admitted to Tiberias Caesar’s court because of her high social standing.  After describing how poorly Pilate had administered justice at Jesus’ trial, she told Caesar that Jesus had risen from the dead.  To help explain the resurrection, she picked up an egg from the dinner table.  Caesar responded that a human being could no more rise from the dead than the egg in her hand turn red.  The egg turned red immediately, which is why red eggs have been exchanged at Easter for centuries in the Byzantine East.

Mary did not end her days as a penitent hermit in a French cave.  She traveled the Mediterranean preaching the resurrection.  Like Peter and Paul, she died a martyr and she bears witness to the important roles women play in the Church.

The inscription at the bottom of the icon reads: “Saint Mary Magdalene” in Syriac, a dialect of the language spoken by Jesus.  The Gospel comes to us, not from Rome or Greece, but from the deserts of the Middle East.  We owe our faith to Semitic Christians like Mary Magdalene.  Her feast day is July 22.

 

As has been observed, there is a similarity between Lentz’s icon and the well-known National Geographic cover photo {June 1985} of ‘the green-eyed young woman’ from Afghanistan. Her possible inspiration for Lentz’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene is noted here: { http://art-for-a-change.com/blog/2006/02 }. The text quoted above is borrowed from the Trinity Stores website (I have no commercial connection with them), through whom copies of Lentz’s icons may still be available.

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