The Seven Powers of the Magdalene
These are my thoughts for tomorrow's presentation at the Second Annual Women's Conference at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.
Women and Power
Panel: “Knowing what must be done does away with fear." Rosa Parks
When I was 36 years old, I quit my job as a college facilitator because I needed to be an artist. At this point I had overcome fear. Rosa Park's words are a good way to explain my decision: I knew what I must do, so fear was no longer guiding me.
I had made the same "mistake" several times. I write "mistake' in quotations because all experiences are valuable and mistakes are lessons. But there comes a time when continuing to make the same mistake is no longer viable. And I didn't want to spend my entire life wanting something I couldn't have, so I decided to take the leap.
There were some pieces in place. My previous decisions to put art aside in favor of a regular job helped me buy a building with my husband and, for a while, establish an art gallery in the first floor of the place. I met many people and learned a lot from the artists that exhibited their work there as well as the social and cultural activists that organized and attended events in the place.
I also got very sick and very sad. Which made me create art that called the attention of artists and cultural leaders in my community. Since I was very sick and was unable to work while I recovered from a stem-cell transplant for cancer, this gave me the opportunity to spend time creating.
In the summer of 2004, I read The Da Vinci Code and was curious about the story of Mary Magdalene. I knew that authors don't just make up things, and that all that information about Mary Magdalene must be out there somewhere. During a visit to the bookstore, next to The Da Vinci Code, I found Margaret Starbird's The Woman with the Alabaster Jar. The information it contained inspired my first three paintings of Mary Magdalene.
What most caught my attention about this character of Christian myth was that there could be another story to the religion that kept western women powerless for so many centuries. I had never really read the Bible until a few years ago, but my grandmother made sure I learned all I needed to know about being a Catholic girl. However, the Virgin Mary was such a high ideal for a teenager in New York City, where I moved at age 15, that I soon gave up on what my grandmother tried to teach me.
Mary Magdalene, however, was a different archetype. She had some powers that I could relate to:
The Power of the Color Red
I remember reading "The Red Shoes" in a beautiful edition of Russian fairy tales I found in the local library of my hometown. In the story, a young girl disobeys her blind grandmother and wears her red shoes to church, bringing onto herself a terrible punishment for her disobedience. The shoes start moving and dancing her out of the church, and she can't stop, ever. I read somewhere that in some versions of this story they have to cut off her feet in order to make the shoes stop.
Red is also the color that your don't wear to funerals, that is too loud and too powerful to wear normally.
In painting, the Magdalene's color is red, a way to point to her role as the prostitute that washed Jesus feet with her tears in the Bible.
But red is also the color of power, the color that guides the eye around a painting, the color that, when you wear it, makes you energized and sensual.
Will fear make our red shoes dance ourselves to death, or will the power and energy of the color red give us the strength to face the challenges of life? History and a Pope have revindated the Magdalene, and she is no longer supposed to be confused with the prostitute of the New Testament. She wears red as she wears her own power.
The power of Creative Spirituality
When Mary Magdalene chose to follow Jesus, there was no Christianity. He was someone that offered something different, something unique. He offered women a place next to the men. A spirituality of equality. The first Christians went in couples to spread their message.
Mary Magdalene received teachings that the other apostles never heard. Peter was furious about this and, according to some scholars, he became one of Mary Magdalene's worst enemies. But as we learn from the Gospel of Mary, and apocryphal book of the Bible, she kept on seeing her teacher in visions that gave her new insights into the spiritual world.
When early Christianity was divided by differences in doctrine, one of the factions followed Mary Magdalene's teachings. These were the Gnostics, who believed that wisdom is attained through personal experience of the Divine, and who were later persecuted and contained by the early Church.
One of the stories of Magdalene mythology says that she preached to the people of the South of France and converted them. She would preach outside, in gardens. She also went to live in prayer inside a cave, where she spent her life as a mystic, her clothes in rags, eating only what people brought her or what the angels fed her.
Unfortunately a lot of her followers were killed in the First Crusade, but it seems her teachings survived long enough for Dan Brown to write a bestseller.
Since there are so many stories about Mary Magdalene, us artists are free to create our own interpretations. She provides a prototype from which we can create the saint that we need.
The Power of Sex
I have read stories and interpretations about Mary Magdalene that portray her as a sacred prostitute, a priestess of Isis, the wife of Jesus, a regular prostitute, the inciator of Jesus into the Mysteries that gave him the power he had, a powerful preacher, a mother, the Holy Grail. Mary Magdalene is definitely not a virgin.
What she offers is another view of sex. Sex as a holy encounter. Sex as an act of equality. Sex as a woman's area of expertise.
This painting is titled Surrender and it is about that moment when Jesus takes seven demons out of Mary Magdalene. She became healed, pure, after living and learning. She is the saint that shows us it is never late, and that all knowledge can be power, even bad memories can teach us about our own strength and about overcoming fear in order to go forward towards those best versions of ourselves.