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Art and Images in Psychiatry |

El Greco's The Penitent Magdalene

James C. Harris, MD
Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012;69(12):1194. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2012.111.
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Mary Magdalene provides a lens to view the role of the feminine in religion and culture over the centuries. She has been variously portrayed as a wealthy benefactress to Jesus and his followers, as a prostitute, as an apostle, as an ascetic, as a contemplative, and as Jesus' companion. In these various roles, she is viewed as an individual, and her individuality allows an exploration of the feminine in Christianity. Her life is reflected not only in the New Testament descriptions of her but also in the Gnostic Book of Mary1 and the Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt.2 In the New Testament Gospels, she is identified as the privileged person who found the empty tomb and to whom the resurrected Christ first appeared. Earlier in the Christian Bible, she is described as among the wealthy women who provided material support for Jesus' teaching. In the Book of Mary,1 she is said to be the most beloved among the disciples and is described there as the female apostle. In the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Gospels,2 she is referred to as a leader who went forth along with the other disciples in the Book of Thomas and as companion to Jesus in the Book of Philip.

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Doménikos Theotokópoulos (known as El Greco; 1541-1614), Greek. The Penitent Magdalene, 1580-1585. Oil on canvas, 101.6 × 81.9 cm (40 × 32¼ in). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust. Photo: Jamison Miller

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