Fingers and Mirrors: Caravaggio and the Conversion of Mary Magdalene in Renaissance Rome

Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene, c. 1598. Detroit Institute of Arts, 73.268.

When the Conversion Narratives team went to Fort Worth, Texas for the Sixteenth-Century Studies conference in October last year, we were lucky enough to catch an incredible exhibition, ‘Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome’ at the magnificent Kimbell Art Museum. We particularly enjoyed the chance to spend some time face-to-face with Caravaggio’s potent image of Martha and Mary Magdalene, often called ‘The Conversion of Mary Magdalene’.

The image, which is usually housed in the Detroit Institute of Arts, where you can zoom in to see much of the fine detail of the painting, depicts an earnest Martha persuading a lavishly-dressed Mary of her sins. For Roman viewers, the scene would have gained a particular frisson from their knowledge that the sitter who portrayed Mary was a well-known courtesan, Fillide Melandroni (Martha may have been another courtesan, Anna Bianchini) — so that the dynamic of the painting is frustrated by the non-conversion of the real-life counterpart to this ambiguously pious figure. Continue reading

First of the new term’s CREMinars…


Image of a page from one of the Little Gidding Harmonies

We’re really looking forward to this evening, when we start a rich and lively round of CREMS events with a paper from Adam Smyth, of Birkbeck, University of London. Adam will be talking about the fabulous — and bizarre — Little Gidding Harmonies, a series of books created by cutting up and sticking together bits of different bibles. It should be a great opportunity to reflect on questions about our attitudes to books and the sacred, about women’s agency (it was the founder of the community, Nicholas Ferrar’s, nieces who did most of the scissor work, under their uncle’s instruction), and about how we understand authorship and acts of making meaning.

Members of the CREMS community are big fans of Adam’s work, from his book on Printed Miscellanies to his collection on drinking in early modern England. The Conversion Narratives team are particuarly influenced by his recent book on early modern autobiography, which pushes scholars to look to new sources and structures (including financial records) to find people quite literally ‘accounting for’ themselves before the emergence of the diary or autobiography as a recognisable genre.

There’s lots more coming this term as well, with seminars and lectures on subjects as diverse as Colonial America, the Reformation in York, the influence of Seneca, the elites of Golden Age Spain, ‘Substance, Creation, and Transformation’ in a Roman chapel, and a convent kitchen, where nuns combined cuisine and curatives.

The CREMS seminars are open to all. You can download a copy of our handsome events poster for this term, or visit the CREMS website. And there will be lots more over the next two terms, from Nigel Smith giving our annual Patrides lecture to a major conference on Sensing the Sacred.