Moving with the Magdalen

Late Medieval Art and Devotion

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Joanne W. Anderson
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , March
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When he was revising his essays on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, the art historian Leo Steinberg began by asking his readers (and himself) “Is there anything more to say?” Obviously even more recent publications and conversations have proven there was a lot more to say, especially as that Renaissance mural could be investigated from intriguing technical advances and innovative methodologies. Given the plethora of books and essays about Mary Magdalene that have surged exponentially in the last twenty years, one is almost tempted to ask “Is there anything more to say?” However, as art historian Joanne W. Anderson has demonstrated in her recent and aptly titled Moving with the Magdalen: Late Medieval Art and Devotion in the Alps, not only is there a lot more to say, there are many new venues to explore.

In her carefully structured and regionally circumscribed study, Anderson relocates her reader’s attention and eyes away from the traditional geographic boundaries of Provence, Tuscany, and Umbria toward a series of seven understudied—and perhaps little known—late 13th- and early 16th-century fresco cycles and altarpieces in the Alpine region that today corresponds to northern Italy, Switzerland, and Austria.

Beginning with her introduction and throughout her topically confined chapters, Anderson lays down the gauntlet to the future of Magdalen studies as she examines not simply traditional art historical concerns including artistic technique and media, provenance, style, and iconography but also expands her inquiries to include patronage, liturgical innovations, contemporary theology, performance arts, and contemporary fashion as well as pilgrimage and trade routes and highlighting further economic and political concerns. Anderson has organized a mosaic of multiple factors that influenced not simply the commissioning of these fresco cycles and altarpieces but also the successful transformations of the Magdalen’s traditional imagery and her expanding role in the religious devotions of both local parishes and pilgrims on their way to Compostela, Rome, and Jerusalem from northern Europe.   

Chapter 1 is dedicated to detailed analyses of the extant eight narrative panels delineating four Gospel scenes and four Provençal legends that are still found on the Carema Altarpiece (ca. 1295: Palazzo Madama-Museo Civico d’Arte Antica, Turin) and credited to the Oropa Master and his workshop. This altarpiece was originally located in the town of Carema on the Via Francigena close to Provence and north of Turin, and Anderson proposes that the then-recent revival of the Magdalen cult, which resulted from the rediscovery of the saint’s relics in Provence and their ratification by Pope Bonifance VIII in 1295, affected this work. Chapter 2 is a study of the mid-14th-century fresco cycle by the Waltensburg Master found in the Sankt Maria Magdalena in Dusch (Switzerland) neighboring a Premonstratensian monastery. The order’s dedication to both active and contemplative monastic lives inspired not only iconographic innovations in the Magdalen’s imagery but also promoted the liturgical and spiritual practices of the saint’s eremitic life.  

In chapters 3 and 4, Anderson turns the reader’s attention to the distant pilgrimage center of Sankt Magdalena in Prazöll in the South Tyrol and the fresco cycle in Sankt Oswald in the Austrian town of Seefeld. The pilgrimage routes up these difficult and dangerous mountains to these cult sites suggested the rigorous spiritual journey that the Magdalen undertook to participate in her legend and cult at other European monastic retreats at La-Sainte-Baume and Mount Pilatus.

However, there were clear distinctions between these two locations that continued the transformations in the Magdalen’s visual narrative and devotional appeal to the pilgrims, clergy, and laity alike. Anderson proposes that a significant influence to the images found in Prazöl were the local mystery plays while the cycle at Seefeld is undoubtedly associated with the indigenous Maundy Thursday host miracle of 1384. As a result, the Magdalen’s expansive narrative and iconography morphed visually from legendary miracle worker to her affiliations with the sacraments of penance and Eucharist in these two locations.

The 16th-century Magdalen Altarpiece by Matheis Strobel in her designated South Tyrolean church of Mareit is detailed in chapter 5 as the relationship between the saint and her cult with the local economy composed of miners and the practice of mining. Anderson associates the parallels between the physical and spiritual hardships the Magdalen experienced in La-Sainte-Baume with those of the miners who performed their daily labors in similarly dark, damp, and rocky underground grottoes.

The following two chapters reveal the excellence of Anderson’s art historical eye as she relates the history and meaning of two comprehensive narrative cycles, first in Santa Maria Maddalena in Cusiano (Trentino) and secondly Sankt Maria in Pontresina (Switzerland). With both dating from the late 15th-century, the multilevel influences on these two visual narratives include the significance of their locations on pilgrimage/trade routes, and of itinerant mystery/liturgical dramas, and resident preachers on the transformations of the traditional motifs of the Magdalen from both biblical and legendary sources.

However, Anderson’s analysis of the Pontresina narrative located in a church originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary is more intriguing as the Magdalen’s devotional and legendary post-biblical life as a miracle worker (especially infertility) and as a protector of women during pregnancy and childbirth merges with the intercessory role as a saint who reflects the significance of Christian redemption.

Throughout her text, Anderson supplies her readers with copious informative endnotes and bibliography. The illustrations, which are never enough in any book of this nature, are especially illuminating as the artworks are so little known. Fortunately for her readers, Anderson has proved to be an adept photographer. While she began her text with four critical questions, all of which she responded to throughout her seven chapters, it is her fourth question on the relationship between artworks and rural society that tell us about devotional life. Along with the subject of her study, Anderson has moved beyond a conventional art historical analysis to widen the boundaries of the study of religious art into the realms of visual culture, material culture, gender studies, and rural devotions. Accordingly, she has widened the study of Mary Magdalen into new geographic and iconographic territories.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Diane Apostolos-Cappadona is Professor Emerita of Religious Art and Cultural History and Haub Director in the Catholic Studies Program, Georgetown University.

Date of Review: 
August 12, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joanne W. Anderson is lecturer in art history at the Warburg Institute, London.


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