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  • Writer's pictureTessel van der Putte

Magdalena: sacred and profane

A male and female looking figure in an embrace, minimal lines and black and white surfaces

Recently I visited the mesmerizing exhibition ‘Maria Magdalena’ at the Catharijne Convent Museum in Utrecht, the Netherlands. The exhibition allows you to wander through some 2,000 years of fascination, art and stories about a woman whose image has been depicted and constructed throughout time in so many different ways. The exhibition asks: who was Maria Magdalena? Was she a sinner, as often is told, one of the apostles or the love and wife of Jesus? And what did it even mean, to be a woman and a “sinner” in those times?

Through the years, religion has often associated her story with “sin” and sexuality. Yet what the exhibition aims to do justice to, is that perhaps she should be perceived as a feminist icon in a story of predominantly men and that she was an inspiration and important teacher of her time. The exhibition also highlights that her name became “smeared” at some point in history, many years after her death - something that would impact women throughout the next hundreds of years to come - and if you ask me, still today.

Visiting the exhibition, made me think about how Maria Magdalena and her story illustrate today’s contradictory notion of what it means to be a woman, what we expect of them and what girls are conditioned into from the moment they are born. Women should be both pure and modest and yet at the same time they are doomed to be profane, sexualized, and all of that while carrying taboos within the cycles of their bodies. The feminine is both associated with the womb that gives life as well as with the womb that bleeds every month.

I’m not the only one. This bias towards women in being perceived and labelled as either a virgin or a whore (the “Madonna-whore dichotomy”) is an interesting discussion many feminists have been, and are, spotlighting. They point out that this stereotyping and policing of women, either fitting them into the box of being virtuous, sexless and pure, or in a diametric box in opposition to that, being an impure and sexualized woman, severely limits women’s sexual freedom and self-worth. Women’s identity has been made into a binary, as if to say that a woman in touch with her sexuality and sensuality, cannot be virtuous. The paradox is that, still today, schoolgirls are send back home if they show too much shoulder on the school photo, while Olympic athletes are fined for not showing enough skin if they decide to wear pants.

Some feminists even ask: how do our gendered lenses and expectations, reflect in other value systems of today’s world? For example, might certain value systems be reflected in the way we treat and employ the natural environment around us (“mother nature” - which is generally seen as feminine)? And what kind of professions do we tend to value most in society - the ones that revolve around care and emotional intelligence (also associated with the feminine)? …Are those the ones that are paid accordingly, if paid at all? Generally, we see that those care-taking professions such as people working with small children or elderly, to give an example, are paid significantly lower salaries than those professions that are generally associated with the ‘masculine’ or sectors that are predominantly male, such as the corporate and finance sectors (tip: have a read in the book Invisible Women Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez if this is something you want to learn more about).

What is the meaning behind the painting ‘Magdalena’?

This inherent duality of what it means to be a woman, or at least what the outside world thinks of it, is something I wanted to consolidate in the painting ‘Magdalena’. The canvas depicts a nude of a woman, which is (ironically) a loved subject manner throughout art history. The Guerrilla girls even asked in 1989 if women have to be naked to get into a museum - pointing out that so few female artists were exhibited in museums in contrast to their male counterparts, yet so often the subject matter themselves!

sacred heart of jesus

In my painting, the skin of the female figure is painted in deep red, the color of blood and war, referring to ‘the earthly’ part of us, yet also to passion and love. The female entity points to her throat, a reference to the famous sacred heart of Jesus depictions, as if to say that we have to check in with ourselves and be guided by our hearts, rather than our thoughts. In this painting however, the heart is positioned at the height of the throat chakra (Vishuddha Chakra), which is a place of manifestation and expression of who we are. In Ayurveda, which sees the human body as a microcosm of the Universe, we find that the area of the throat chakra is not only a purification center, but also an energy center to voice ourselves, take up space, and express who we truly are from within.

Tessel posing with canvas

As a means of bridging this “sacred and yet profane” dichotomy, the female figure is surrounded by deep green colors, alluding to the natural world, plants and growing life. This green forms a sharp contrast with the body, which is painted in an opposite color: illustrating contrast of being, of thinking and to a certain extent symbolizing a disconnection of our times.

At the same time, the painting aims to honor and re-shape the relationship with mother nature, by questioning: does the way we treat femininity in and outside of ourselves reflect how we treat the natural world around us? And should both be healed in order for humanity as a whole to progress and “bloom”?

Finally, the woman in red has her eyes closed, like most figures I have been painting in my recent canvasses. She is in a silent, peaceful and dream-like state of mind, referring back to the worlds we carry within us. In the right upper corner of the painting, there is an abstract and almost geometric-like eye, which is wide open. This eye symbolizes our higher selves and the fact that, even though we don't see how our inner and outer worlds are connected and manifested in the physical world, this does not mean it is not there. Perhaps most of us just still have our eyes closed.

'Magdalena' acrylic on canvas, 80 x 100 cm.

The title of the painting ‘Magdalena’ is a biblical reference. Magdalena represents the feminine in a story of wise men, a figure that was both sacred and scrutinized, but until this day also a symbol of love, intuition and wisdom.


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