The art essay of the month

Penitent Mary Magdalene (c. 1576–1580) by El Greco (1541–1614)

El Greco: From Spiritual Struggle to Marian Surrender

Before art became such a widely prized commodity, artists relied on commissions for their livelihood, and therefore their subjects were as diverse in theme as the requests of the commissioners. Nonetheless, it is sometimes possible to pinpoint one particular theme that is played out repeatedly throughout an artist’s life. It is as if their art—their heart—had found in this particular subject a unique resonance, one that mysteriously attunes form and matter, style and substance, art and life. Such is the Presentation for Rembrandt and the Pietà for Michelangelo. Such is Mary Magdalene Penitent for Doménikos Theotokópoulos, better known as El Greco.

Of all the protagonists of the Gospels, Mary Magdalene is, besides Jesus, Mary, and the Baptist, the one who has most inspired artists throughout history—more than any of the apostles. Though little is known about her life, we find it stretched, as it were, between the darkest depths of sin (before she met Jesus, she was possessed by seven demons [cf. Lk 8:2]) and the heights of holiness (she finished her life, it is said, as a hermit in a grotto in southern France). In other words, she displays before us the whole spectrum of human experience, from the most intense trials to the purest expressions of love.

El Greco and Mary Magdalene have something in common: they do not stand still. The artist’s brushstrokes impart being, movement, and life to every least blade of grass, while the saint is always depicted in the Gospel as either impelled towards Jesus or running to and from the empty tomb. In this depiction of Mary Magdalene, the first of many, El Greco contemplates the saint in the very moment of conversion—the moment when the subtle balance (or rather, the raging battle) between light and darkness is finally tipped in favor of the former. More than a historical moment in the life of the saint, he paints the inner movement of her whole existence. As the rising sun slowly illumines the creation, a heavenly ray of light breaks through the clouds in her direction while the skull rolls off her hand, soon to fall out of the frame and smash on the rocks.

A river of light

Born in Crete, El Greco was first trained as an icon painter. Even as he later embraced the mystical realism of the Renaissance Italian painters Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, he never betrayed his first love. His iconographic debut is particularly salient in its treatment of light, which irrupts vertically in a painting previously layered with earthly and fleshly pigments. This substantial light generously bathes the saint like baptismal water poured on her forehead, dripping down her body, cascading down the rock, and playing with delight within the folds of the saint’s garments. Wherever it lands on the painting, our gaze is carried back to heaven as if by a river of light flowing back to its source.

A second conversion

In her Book of All Saints, Adrienne von Speyr offers us a precious insight into the artist’s desire to make his art an instrument of his faith: El Greco “knows God’s ‘ever-greater’ character and the distance that lies between God and man, and he wants to illustrate what he knows, what he sees, what he believes. He would like every painting to be a hundred times better than it is in order that it might radiate God’s atmosphere and become a confession, which would not only attract, but would also broaden the image of the world, the way of seeing, and the faith of the person who contemplates the paintings.”

A question, however, may be raised. While it is true that the depiction of “the Penitent Magdalene” is ahistorical in that it does not refer to any one precise moment in her life, but rather symbolically captures the saint’s lasting state of contrition and hope-filled devotion, it is clearly set after the Ascension of the Lord. Besides, El Greco departed from tradition inasmuch as he showed the Magdalene not just in a “state of penitence” but at the moment of conversion. What, then, is the nature of this conversion, since it can be traced back to her first encounter with Jesus, when he delivered her from seven demons? That El Greco understood the need to depict a “second conversion” later in the saint’s life gives a clue to his own spiritual struggle, and the reason he always came back to Mary Magdalene as a kind of spiritual sister.

El Greco “is plagued by doubts,” continues Adrienne von Speyr, “because he sees what is unfinished in every painting and would like to start over. And yet from the very beginning he knows: it cannot succeed. No talent can find its ultimate expression in art alone, if it is a gift of faith.”

This depiction of the artist’s inner tension could just as well apply to Mary Magdalene. When she first met the risen One, he pushed her back, saying: Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father (Jn 20:17). Her love needed to be purified from the temptation to “hold on” to his physical, immediate presence. El Greco depicted the saint in the act of this ultimate conversion of her love, by which she freely and peacefully surrenders to the Father with an almost Marian faith. Distancing himself from the somewhat gloomy depictions of the saint’s austerity, El Greco paints a joyful mystery, an Annunciation. Far from voiding the material world, the saint’s surrender vests it with its ultimate meaning as the sacrament of the Father’s uncreated beauty.


Father Paul Anel
A chaplain to artists in the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y.


Penitent Mary Magdalene (c. 1576–1580), El Greco (1541–1614), Museum of Montserrat, Spain. © Museo de Montserrat.