Jules Joseph Lefebvre: Mary Magdalen in the Grotto
Alluding to her sensuality in more striking and provocative images, the works of artists of the nineteenth century portrayed Mary Magdalene as “the woman who loved much.” After centuries of character transformations and questionable depictions, she is finally and totally physically and spiritually exposed. In Mary Magdalene in the Grotto by Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Mary is at the cave, her nude body lying at the site where Jesus had lain. A French classical figure painter whose artistic specialty is female nudes and beautiful women, Lefebvre’s nude Magdalene is refined and reflects the style of Realism as characterized by the accurate, detailed and unembellished depiction of nature. This depiction captures the essence of her emotions. This extremely erotic presentation of the Magdalene demands immediate empathy from the viewer while the awe of her beauty and sensuous pose grabs our attention. Lefebvre seems to avoid contemporary social conditions of pornography and prostitution widespread in this period in Europe. According to Haskins, he conforms to the conventions of art in the physicality of her body on the picture plane, “rendering acceptable what would otherwise have scandalized Victorian prudery.” Haskins further notes that in “this almost photographic image, the Magdalene writhes in her anguish” and offers “her entirely naked body to the spectator’s delectation.” Her raised left leg, suggests Haskins, while concealing her genital area, “invites erotic speculation.” In his Mary Magdalene in the Grotto, Lefebvfre depicted a “sensuous, supine nude Magdalene…she is in a world beyond the mind.” [Lester p. 262] [Buthaina I. Zanayed, The Visual Representation of Mary Magdalene in Art: From Penitent Saint to Propagator of the Faith, M.A. Thesis, University of Houston-Clear Lake, 2009]
Resources cited in this excerpt:
1) Haskins, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor.
2) Lester, The Everything Mary Magdalene Book: The Life and Legacy of Jesus’ Most Misunderstood Disciple.