Sunday 15th March
The Magdalen Reading was one of the first paintings that I can remember loving. I collect images of women reading, and this piece, dating from when the general populace was unable to read, is especially powerful and affirming, making obvious the accepted identification of the Magdalen with Mary of Bethany, who differs from her sister Martha in choosing a more scholarly path. I went on to study the Middle Ages in graduate school, and returned to the painting as evidence of the way medieval settings and clothing were seen as perfectly appropriate for biblical characters and stories, so alive was the past in the present of their faith, as indeed it should be to all good Christians! (to paraphrase the fifteenth century pilgrim-mystic Margery Kempe when rebuked by a priest for excessive crying at Easter).
The Magdalen is composed and focused, gathering wisdom and intellectual ammunition for the mission ahead. This image has powered me through much reading and writing, but also reminded me of the pleasure of a beautiful green dress, or the other job (and the oil pot) nearby.
Christina Barker, Member of St Stephen’s Healing Team
Monday 16th March
Mary Magdalene is perhaps reading about herself in the Bible. She is absorbed in the “wondrous story” as she relives it. She had been cured and made whole by the saving power of Christ’s love and forgiveness, and she knows that Jesus lives. Her face is serene, as if she has not only a special understanding of the text but affection for the words.
We can read about ourselves in Scripture. We may not find our names, but we can identify ourselves. As we learn the story from “poets, prophets, scholars, saints, each a word from God repeating,” (Hymn 631, v.2), we can find the serenity of hope.
“How sweet are your words to my taste! They are sweeter than honey to my mouth.” (Psalm 119:103). We return from age to age in thanksgiving.
Louisa Young, Lector, Church Tour Guide,
Renewal Works Team Member, and Volunteer, Holy Trinity
Tuesday 17th March
I have been chosen to read a part of our exodus story tonight. This is a great honour, so I practise now to do a good job.
I also have another other plan. I believe my master is the Messiah we were promised many, many generations ago. He has given me so much. The way he treated me and included me in his group of followers was absolutely amazing. I actually felt as if I, in spite of being a woman and living by myself, did have standing and something to contribute. This is such an amazing state of life that I want to give something back.
I have here an alabaster jar full of Spikenard. This is the most expensive perfume around here. I shall make a little speech, wash the master’s feet and give him a good massage with plenty of my perfume oil. I hope he likes it because the scent will cling to him a long time. I want to show him my appreciation so much, and honour him in a special way. For the way he deals with us all something extraordinary needs to be done for him.
Leader of Guided Meditations at St Stephen’s Church
Wednesday 18th March
When I look at this painting, I see a woman who is presumably reading from a prayer book, or perhaps a Bible. I then look out the window to see three people outside. Two of them seem to be walking on a path and the other seems to be practicing archery (let’s hope nothing more dramatic than that is going on). I wonder if the people outside would be welcome to come inside and pray with the woman. Could she turn the latch to open the window and call out to them to invite them in? I wonder what they’d say if she did that. Who might be just outside our window that we could welcome in to worship with us?
Paul Chernick, Vestry Member, Holy Trinity
Thursday 19th March
A few years ago I was organist of a church dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, and in preparing music for the patronal festival and listening to our vicar's sermon I discovered how difficult a figure Mary Magdalene is to pin down. This is partly because of the late 6th century conflation of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and an unnamed "sinful" woman. Although this conflation was officially undone in the mid-20th century, their stories are nevertheless entangled. And this 15th century painting features a version of this "composite" Magdalene, appropriately ambiguous - hair only partially veiled, her dress modest but fur-lined (symbolising sexuality), sitting on a sparse room's floor but on a red cushion reading a lavish devotional book, her face and gaze tilted downward perhaps simultaneously in sorrow or repentance and concentration on study, an active outdoors alternative to her contemplative life visible in the distance. Mary Magdalene has been portrayed as exemplary for many reasons. But something of which her many aspects - sometimes ambivalent or even contradictory - might remind us, both about ourselves and others, is that we are all complex and composite, made up of many histories, stories, and contexts that can seem incongruent but are, in fact, perfectly fine and natural. And, further, the fact that this painting is a fragment of a larger (and lost) altarpiece might remind us that which part or side of these entangled identities you see of others, and others see of you - for it is rarely possible, if ever, to see the whole at once - depends on that cornerstone of the visual arts: perspective.
Matthew Blaiden, Director of Music, St Stephen's Church
Friday 20st March
Here is a woman who is so engrossed in her Bible or prayer book that she doesn’t even seem to notice the pomp and circumstance around her. She seems to have taken a moment aside, as other folks seem to be celebrating some sort of a ceremony, wearing proper clothes and all. But look at her: hungry for knowledge! She doesn’t even seem to mind missing that beautiful day outside. This is what it is to seek wisdom, to seek truth, to seek Love.
Marketing Analyst and Husband to an Art Teacher, Holy Trinity
Saturday 21st March
When looking at this beautiful painting by Rogier Van der Weyden of Mary Magdalen Reading, I am struck by her absorption in the written word. What happens when we read and encounter text on paper? Stories and font styles both printed and hand-written can affect us emotionally, evoke memories, and allow us to create links and make new connections in our minds, and transport us in space and time.
I am reminded of Alan Bennett’s brilliant History Boys, when the inspirational teacher Hector explains to one of his students “The best moments in reading are when you come across something, a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
Rogier Van der Weyden was, in a way, playing with time in this painting, dressing this biblical figure in 15th century clothes and placing her in a Late Medieval room, allowing the viewer to bring her close, as an aid to meditation. Rogier painted in Brussels, Flanders and, along with Jan Van Eyck in Bruges, was one of the first wave of artists to develop and perfect the technique of oil painting which influenced painters all over Europe. Oil paint is pigment colour mixed with walnut oil, and, unlike the other favoured processes in Italy, fresco watercolour, or egg yolk tempera (both dried very quickly), oil paint takes several weeks to dry, and allows skilled artists like Rogier to work in microscopic and macroscopic realistic detail, and, brush away their brush marks, and so producing a seemingly magical image to contemplate, connecting us to the past.
Marc Woodhead, Educator at the National Gallery