The Maudlin Impression: English Literary Images of Mary Magdalene, 1560-1700.
Mary Magdalene's privileged place among Christian saints, from late antiquity on, can hardly be questioned. The last twenty years has seen no shortage of scholarly as well as popular interest in the life and iconographic history of this saint. Patricia Badir's new study of early modern Magdalene imagery makes a valuable contribution to Magdalene studies as she builds upon the recent work of scholars like Theresa Coletti, who have examined Mary's special role as female religious icon in late medieval culture. In this rich cross-disciplinary approach, Badir considers how the Magdalene, as a site of spiritual devotion, theological reflection, and literary and aesthetic representation makes the transition, in English culture in particular, from late medieval Catholic icon to early modern Protestant exemplar. Yet she never draws these lines too starkly. In fact, her approach consistently questions the calcified juxtapositions of Catholic and Protestant theology and aesthetics. Although she certainly sets her discussion against the backdrop of a Reformed iconophobia, she reveals the ways in which sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literary and artistic treatments of the Magdalene mediate, conserve, and translate Catholic sacramentalism into new modes of representation that are authentically Reformed without severing entirely from the aesthetic and devotional history of the medieval Church and its saints. In this way, Badir's study participates in the recent reassessment of the English Reformation that "has challenged the orthodoxy of a Protestant master narrative" (221, n. 3).
In laying out the scope and methodology of her work in the introduction, Badir establishes a solid historical and theological framework for understanding the development of Mary Magdalene's role in the art and theology of the medieval period as well as lucid explanations for her continued legitimacy, as a figure with "scriptural vitality" (3), for Reformation culture. She focuses specifically on early modern exegesis of Matthew 26, particularly Calvin's and Erasmus', seeing this passage as a key to understanding the centrality of the Magdalene figure for discussions of Christ's continuing presence. What even the most ardent of reformers cannot escape, she explains, is that Mary's presence in the Gospels always insists that knowledge of Christ is achieved through "an epistemology of the senses" (13).
While the early modern Magdalene stands ostensibly purged of the apocryphal embellishments of her biography that accrue during the medieval period, Badir explains, "she actually speaks to the necessity of making stories and provides an anthology of aesthetic strategies and creative possibilities to do so" (9). Badir's aim is to explore the variety and vitality of artistic and poetic innovations achieved within an early modern anthology of Mary Magadalen. As she does so, she is not simply making formalist claims about an evolving early modern poetics (though that is certainly part of her aim) but expanding and enriching the angles and content of continuing theological conversations on the nature of Christ's incarnate revelation, the meaning of his death, or absence, and the question of his continuing presence. Her historicist, though not strictly New Historicist, study traces the ways in which evolving religious subjectivities both prompt and are reflected in notable aesthetic changes and developments, and for this reason, should be of interest to a large number of C&L readers.
In chapter One, "The Look of Love," Badir introduces her argument that Mary's blazon makes possible--in some ways inaugurates--a new Protestant mode of aesthetic representation that allows both artist and audience to imagine the experience of Christ's presence through imagining Mary's corporeal contact with the divine in ways that resist, though not altogether successfully, "the ornamental fictions and decorative embellishments" (52) of her medieval past. Focusing on literary treatments of Mary's conversion, from Lewis Wager's 1566 morality play The Life and Repentaunce of Mary Magdalen to Thomas Robinson's 1620 epic The Life and Death of Mary Magdalen, Badir traces how "ancient constructions of the luxurious and loquacious Magdalene are revitalized in Protestant writing in order to align her with a degenerate and decadent faith that would be fortuitously demolished by the providential forces of Protestantism" (26). As Badir rightly notes, the story of her profligate past and the dramatic, emotional character of her conversion and penance carry over from her medieval hagiographical history. The story isn't new, in other words, but its figurative representations are. Badir argues further that this new Reformed version of Mary's psychomachia, in its attempt to represent Mary's conversion from licentiousness to sober piety as a triumph of Protestant iconoclasm ultimately fails because it "inadvertently reinstates the power of the very image she was designed to repudiate" (27). It also depends upon material from medieval Magdalene apocrypha (namely her status as a young aristocrat turned prostitute) to set up its figurative contrasts. On the theoretical level, the chapter challenges the binary opposition of icon and text often assumed in discussions of Reformed literature, making good use of recent criticism questioning the antitheatricality of Protestant reformers. Because Badir uses a dramatic piece as her focus text in this chapter, this reader would have appreciated a more thorough consideration of the cycle-drama tradition, with its aim of representing text (scripture) through dramatic presentation (image). Nonetheless, this complex thesis is elegantly argued and well supported by a rich array of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century texts.
What Badir comes to argue in this first chapter--that the idea of the sacred in early modern art begins to overshadow the medieval notion of the sacred embodied in the art--she teases out by turning her attention to the work of several English Catholic writers, most importantly, Robert Southwell, whose Marie Magdalens Funeral Teares, is published in 1591. She argues that Southwell's prose work, through the deep pathos with which it recounts Mary's encounter with the risen Christ in the garden, registers a profound sense of irreparable loss while simultaneously illuminating the Magdalene herself as a figure that commemorates, through the beauty of her gaze, the earthly presence of Christ. The loss, for Catholics like Southwell, is not only the loss of Christ's earthly presence after his crucifixion, but also the more recent loss of his presence in the Eucharist and in "the living practices of a communal culture" (79). The disoriented Mary, like disoriented English Catholics, must recalibrate her vision of Christ and her expectations for a material communion with him. The noli me tangere trope, for Southwell, (and here she aligns Southwell with Erasmus' commentary on John 20) signals an "epistemic shift from a time when one could know God by touching him, to a time when knowledge can come only to the blessed and only to those who have altogether withdrawn from physical attachment" (76). Badir calls Southwell, in the company of several contemporary English Catholic poets, "early heralds of the baroque intrigued by the Magdalene's potential to reshape Christian memory for the age after the icon" (79). She makes the further point that, while the work of these Catholic poets may have been in some ways counter-Reformational, their popularity among Protestants and their sanction by the Archbishop of Canterbury insured their formal, if not their theological, influence on a developing English poetics.
In the next chapter, Badir sets her poetic analysis in direct conversation with visual art as she explores the developing topos of the reading Magdalene, a topos that proves to be, for the three poets she addresses here, a fertile figurative site for the recasting of the medieval contemplative Magdalene as an exemplar of a conformist "Christian subjectivity" (118). Looking at a series of poems by John Donne, Nicholas Breton, and Aemilia Lanyer dedicated to their respective Protestant patronesses, Badir finds common to all a "pious composure ... that seems to erase all trace of the Magdalene's prurient past" (92). Bretons Magdalene portraits, the central focus of this chapter, are consistently marked by their allusions to the contemplative Mary of Luke 10, who listens to Christ's words at his feet while her sister Martha attends to domestic duties and "whose attributes, [as Breton presents them] are spiritual and intellectual rather than corporeal" (95). These more conspicuously Protestant portraits, with their emphasis on sober contemplation of the "Word of God," Badir argues, are nonetheless inherently linked to medieval representations of female mysticism, especially the tradition of Mary of Egypt, the late- antique ascetic often conflated with Mary Magdalene in her medieval hagiography. Finally, the significance of the contemplative subject illuminated in these poems and paintings is, for Badir, "the interplay between the sign of absent presence--the book--and the experience of that presence" (13) reflected in the face of the reading Magdalene. What her face reflects is not only memory of the presence of the Word, but a calm awareness of its present inaccessibility and inscrutability. Her gaze, along with the gaze of the personae who seek to understand the Magdalene in these poems, represents the form that religious poetry must take in the early modern world: "a poetry in which narrative vivacity resides not in the full explication of sensory experience, but in figurative language that invokes something of the obscurity and incomprehensibleness of spiritual experience" (115).
But Badir asserts in the following chapter that the Reformed Magdalene of early seventeenth-century literature and art, even as she points to the inaccessibility of Christ's physical presence and to the Gospels as the textual replacement for the Word made flesh, nonetheless remains "an object of visual scrutiny" (181). This fourth chapter, the book's longest, best demonstrates Badir's impressive command of a wide range of primary and secondary sources. Here, she makes a more direct and sustained argument concerning the dialectical relationship of text and image by examining English Magdalene poetry of the 1620s and '30s in the context of Magdalene portraits, both paintings and prints, of the Continental Renaissance, demonstrating that "literary representations of the Magdalene appealed to pictorial representation" (128) even in a time when religious art was officially prohibited. She notes two historical phenomena that facilitate this appeal: Bishop Laud's program for reintroducing visual art to ecclesiastical culture and a growing English "connoisseur market" for Continental religious art that popularized print images of Mary Magdalene. Beginning with George Herbert's "The Maudlin Epigram," Badir traces "an evolving sympathy for emblematic treatments of religious subjects" (128) in early to mid-seventeenth-century Magdalene poetry. She considers a number of Magdalene epigrams dating from 1625-1651, and relates the aesthetic distillation of her imagery in these epigrammatic treatments to the contemporaneous proliferation of Magdalene images in print versions of Continental paintings. She notes in both the material and literary treatments of Mary Magdalene a mutually reinforcing preoccupation with stylistic technique that tends to overshadow the narrative and devotional content of the works. As she does so, she makes a reasonable, if somewhat tentative, connection to the conventions of European mannerism. She then turns her attention to the Magdalene poems of Robert Herrick, Henry Vaughan, and Richard Crashaw, which, she argues, tend toward ekphrasis as they reveal a self-conscious artistry that foregrounds a tension between the visual and verbal art forms. In the Vaughan poem especially, Badir reads a concern that "stagy artifice" (168) can tilt toward decadence and deception, beguiling both poet and reader.
In her final chapter, Badir further examines the reproduction, proliferation, and commodification of the Magdalene image within the Cavalier culture of Restoration art. These Magdalene portraits--most notably royal portraits by Sir Peter Lely of Charles II's mistresses--make conspicuous Magdalene allusions but are nonetheless thoroughly secular and overtly sensual, reconnecting the Magdalene, as Badir asserts, to the medieval tradition of her sexually illicit past while "divest[ing her] of spiritual content" (198). Badir reads Aphra Behn's play, The Rover, in particular the portraits of the courtesan Angelica, as a commentary on a courtly aesthetic that reverences beautiful artifice that is "empty of presence" (210). Drawing upon the established tension between high and low art, paintings and vulgar reproductions to be consumed by the masses, Behn "scrutiniz[es] a social economy so transfixed by the surface of its images that it failed to acknowledge the tradition ... which ... constitut[es] their history and inform[s] their meaning" (216). Badir notes that, while The Rover is certainly pro-Royalist in its politics, its satire seeks to offer a mediating alternative to "Protestant iconophobia and Cavalier irreverence" (214).
The reader who comes to this volume expecting a single thesis defining the significance of Mary Magdalene in early modern English literature will, no doubt, be disappointed. The strength of this volume--suggested in its title--is its suggestive and impressionistic appeal. While well grounded historically, critically, and textually, Badir's tour of early modern Magdalene imagery points always to the seemingly limitless ways the character and image of Mary has been imagined and reimagined, and the ways she often eludes our grasp.
Karen DeMent Youmans
Oklahoma Baptist University
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|Author:||Youmans, Karen DeMent|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2011|
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