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Rossetti's Magdalene

Rossetti's depiction of Mary Magdalene
Rossetti's depiction of Mary Magdalene

The work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was distinguished by its rich use of symbols. Several of those used by Rossetti in his drawing of Mary Magdalene are found in medieval and Renaissance art, and reinforce the theme of repentance within the picture.

The Annunciation
The Annunciation

Flanking the door to which Mary is ascending are two vases containing flowers. At Mary's left are three lilies, traditional symbols of purity and virginity. In Annunciation scenes, there are often lilies present as the archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she is miraculously carrying the son of God. In Domenic Veneziano's panel from c. 1445, above [1106], the angel holds three lilies as he kneels before the Virgin. The implication in Rossetti's picture, then, is that Mary Magdalene is turning towards a life of purity. She sheds roses from her hair, flowers traditionally associated with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.

To Mary's right a second vase contains three sunflowers. These flowers, which always turn their heads towards the sun, resemble Mary who has turned her back on the revelry and is transfixed by the radiant head of Christ.

The fawn that nibbles at the vine beneath the window through which we see Christ, also reflects Mary's change of heart. It alludes to the opening of Psalm 42:

'As the hart panteth after the waterbrooks, so panteth my soul after thee, oh God.'

The vine at which the fawn nibbles is an ancient symbol for Christ and the Church. In the Gospel of John, 15, 1, Christ himself says,

'I am the true vine'.

Even the chickens pecking around the feet of the beggar girl were given a Biblical significance by Rossetti who in a letter explained that they give 'a kind of equivalent to Christ's words:

'Yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs.'

Rossetti was in fact confused, for those words are spoken in Mark's Gospel not by Christ, but by a woman whom has come to him on behalf of her possessed daughter.

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