Monday, August 6, 2012

Mary Magdalene: Blue Color of Her Robes and Art Historians

 Here we have Lamentation by Petrus Christus from Royal Museum of Art in Brussels. Can you recognize who is who among both Marys? Both have blue robes. Mary, the mother of Jesus is depicted as fainting, her body lifted up by two people. Common depiction, Mary fainting at the lamentation scenes. Is one of the people attending her the Mary Magdalene because she has red dress? Well... no. Color symbolism was common, but not set in stone, there was nothing very dogmatic about it. Please, click on "Mary Magdalene robes"  among the labels/links at the bottom of this post, you can read posts about the other colors.

Lamentation by Petrus Christus, via Wiki commons, click on the picture to view it larger

 But where is Mary Magdalene in this painting? You can recognize her by one of her attributes: the skull. She is the one turned toward the cross and the skull. Ointment jar is another attribute, not in this painting, the cup behind her is the cup for throwing dice, as dice are one of the symbols of Christ's passion. Both Marys are in blue, which was for sure costly, ultramarine was the most expensive of pigments. Both are made clear who they are, made recognizable: one by the pose, another one by her attribute. The viewers of those days knew how both were depicted, today those things are more confusing, as people have less familiarity with iconography.

This example of using so much blue is rather unusual for Petrus Christus himself. He most often used red for Virgin Mary's robes, as was common in the Northern painting. Blue was more common in France. This is of course rough division, the geography, but this is a  more factual explanation to clarify this red and blue vision, than color coding Virgin Mary and Magdalene rigidly.

Rather dogmatic is thinking in red and blue, which sometimes happens today, as art historians and art history buffs say. This means the idiosyncratic idea that Mary the mother of Jesus was depicted only in blue robes, and Mary Magdalene was depicted only in red robes. Luckily the Old Masters where not as limited, or as color blind.But some art historians complain that it is difficult for some people to understand this fact, and even those people will rather aggressively defend their pet idea, in spite the fact that their knowledge is limited.Why is it, and why some people are so fiercely attached to this specific color combination, is a mystery for me. As one art historian said, the subject of the robes of those two venerated quickly reveals how much someone knows, or rather how much someone doesn't knows about art history.

Art historians are not as ignorant as they often gladly represented as: most important, they see a lot of art; when I took history of art on the exam we had c. 600 slides,which were part of the test in the introductory course only, later things were more complicated. Art history classes were compulsory for my degree. I had strong interest in art history quite early, started when I was 13 year sold, so I didn't struggle, but for those people in general who learn art history as elective, mostly it it not an easy A class. It depends on university and who teaches the class, but in general challenges are there, if you want an A, better work hard, as it is not hobby level art history.  

Art historians are very involved in general: they travel if needed, study artists' historical contracts by the patrons and artists, write books, keep current with current research. So, why this need to tell art historians they are so wrong, and specially by people whose knowledge belongs to the limitations of a hobby? Mystery, mystery...