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.

Indeed, for many viewers, the luxury and sensuousness of the painting must have been at least as much, if not perhaps more, of the attraction than its overtly religious content: it offers a genre scene of two Roman women arguing, with the curves of Mary’s face and body echoed in the bulges of the convex mirror on which she rests her left hand (unlike flat steel mirrors, convex mirrors, made from thick, green-tinted ‘forest glass’ blown into globes and lined with lead, did not need to be polished frequently — but nor were they as desirable as crystal mirrors: a fashionable novelty manufactured in Venice, Antwerp, and Rouen). As Andrew Graham-Dixon puts it, Caravaggio’s paintings possess a ‘sensually charged, magnetic attraction’, next to which other paintings ‘appear by comparison to recede, to retreat from the gaze’. (This is not one of Graham-Dixon’s favourites, however: he suggests that Mary is ‘pop-eyed’, ‘puffy’ and ‘distorted’!)

The tension between richness and religious contemplation operates at every level. It is thought that the painting — Caravaggio’s first use of the half-length format, which allows for a greater immediacy and sense of physical presence (we can imagine ourselves seated across the table from the two women) — was commissioned by a noblewoman and sole heiress to a vast family fortune, Olimpia Aldobrandini, since it is first listed in an inventory of her collection, made in 1606. It is itself an object of conspicuous consumption, displayed to show off Aldobrandini’s taste and wealth among the elite of Rome.

Mirror, Mirror

The inclusion of the mirror asks viewers to enter into a dynamic conversation about their own delight in the rich textures of the picture; alongside a powder puff and comb, it points us to Mary’s vanity, and her concern with the things of this world. Rather than showing Mary to herself, however, the mirror captures a diamond of light — a visual representation of the divine grace that inspires Mary to look beyond her earthly passions. The flower that Mary clutches to her chest is an orange blossom: symbol of purity.

Detail from Massys, The Moneylender

A detail from Quentin Massys, The Moneylender, 1514 — Massys included his own reflection as part of the scene reflected in a small convex mirror: a playful example of the artist’s ‘signature’.

As Debora Shuger realises, in a stimulating essay on early modern mirrors, for Renaissance viewers ‘the object viewed in the mirror is almost never the self’ (22). Such mirrors are, Shuger suggests, if not totally Platonic (reflected an absolute ideal), at least ‘platonically angled, titled upwards in order to reflect paradigms rather than the perceiving eye’ (26). Renaissance mirrors, she concludes, ask us to think differently about the mental worlds and self-awareness of people living in this period: ‘they reflect a selfhood that … is beheld, and beholds itself, in relation to God’ (38).

Pilgrims who travelled to Aachen in the fifteenth-century appear to have purchased small convex mirrors as souvenirs: as relics were carried through the thronging crowds, travellers held up the mirrors to catch a glimpse of them, and then preserved the mirrors as objects which, according to Rayna Kalas, ‘betokened that moment when the pilgrim had a vision of and was visible before the sacred relic. … Every subsequent glance at this mirror memento might serve to remind the believer of that glimpse of sacred divinity’. In Caravaggio’s painting, though, Mary looks away from the mirror which might capture her reflection (the ‘dark glass’ of Corinthians?), and towards her shadowed but persuasive sister.

Kalas’s recovery of a material mirror altered by its contact with the divine seems especially interesting in the light of a seminar discussion I had yesterday with a group of MA students, who pointed out how significant the materials of mirrors seemed to be across a range of texts. In this instance of a resolutely Christian materialism, the mirror is transformed  by its contact with the divine, and acts as a charged physical memory of spiritual illumination. Mary’s mirror, then, is no longer an object in which to view herself, but an incarnation of divine revelation, pregnant with spiritual meaning.

Spiritual Accounting

The tension between the sacred and the profane which haunts so much of Caravaggio’s religious painting — and which arguably haunted his colourful life — is captured in the way the dramatic light he painted at once offers a ray of divine illumination striking the mirror, and caresses Mary’s face and bosom. It also draws our attention to Martha’s expressive hands: their arrested motion is central to the narrative quality of the painting, as we are presented with a conversion in motion, which draws the reader in to the conversation and makes them part of the dynamic of Caravaggio’s subtle work. Martha is engaged in a recognised rhetorical technique, frequently used by preachers — counting on her fingers the reason for conversion.

On the left, a preacher, counting out his points for two eager listeners, from Thomas Trevilian’s wonderful manuscript commonplace book (Folger Shakespeare Library, v.b.232, fol. 203v). And on the right, a strikingly similar representation of a judge! (fol. 193v).

Mary’s own fingers are intriguing: her left hand, though it appears casually draped across the mirror, points to the diamond of light, indicating — like the orange blossom — that she has already committed to her conversion, whilst a wedding ring prominently displayed on her finger establishes her as the bride of Christ (in a figurative, rather than a Dan Brown conspiracy-style sense!). Graham-Dixon, however, notes that the odd angle of Mary’s finger — which we might assume to be a technique to show off the ring — reappears in a later portrait of Fillide as St Catherine, suggesting that she had a slight deformity of the hand. Is this, as Graham-Dixon argues, part of Caravaggio’s ‘militant naturalism’, his determination to make the Christian past present and vivid through the recognisable incorporation of contemporary (and famous) flesh? If so, it offers yet another invitation to the reader to see this biblical scene not as a part of a remote past, but as a lively debate and a recurring transformation, played out on the streets and in the salons of Renaissance Rome.

Page from John Bulwer's Chirologia
Page from John Bulwer’s Chirologia or the Naturall Language of the Hand (1644), showing rhetorical hand gestures.


David Franklin and Sebastian Schütze (eds), Caravaggio & his Followers in Rome (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, in association with the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 2011)

Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane (2010)

Rayna Kalas, ‘The Technology of Reflection: Renaissance Mirrors of Steel and Glass’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 32 (2002)

Debora Shuger, ‘The “I” of the Beholder’: Renaissance Mirrors and the Reflexive Mind’, in Fumerton and Hunt (eds), Renaissance Culture and the Everyday (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 21-41

Lots of Renaissance Mirrors here.

And the wonderful Folger Shakespeare Library has digitised the entire Trevilian commonplace book

3 thoughts on “Fingers and Mirrors: Caravaggio and the Conversion of Mary Magdalene in Renaissance Rome

  1. The scene is surely not “Biblical” at all. First of all, of course, there is no Biblical evidence to identify Mary Magdalene with Mary the sister of Martha. Secondly, as regards the latter two sisters, Biblically it is of course Mary who, according to Jesus himself, “has chosen the better part”, i.e. by choosing to sit rapt, listening to Jesus, instead of helping Martha with preparations for the meal.
    Therefore, what is surely evident from Caravaggio’s painting is the painter’s disconnect from a Biblical Christianity and therefore from any real concern with conversion – in this painting at any rate.

  2. The Magdalene Complex
    The chief point of this painting, it would appear, stems from the counterreformation’s need of personal transformation and the occurrence being aided and made manifest (certainly as far as religious painting is concerned) through the cult of the saints (as is made clear, to an extent, in the 24th council session on the arts and therefore a prime concern for the religious painter). Although it depicts Mary and Martha (sisters of Lazarus) and it is debatable whether or not Roman viewers would have seen Magdalene as the aforesaid sister of Martha, the extraordinary connection between the two, offers, as far as religious aids to prayer and meditation are concerned, a greatlikeness. To this end I have decided to stress the importance of the connection between Mary and Magdalene throughout.
    The portrait of the courtesan Fillde Melondroni as Mary, would have most likely been identified by a small number of the middle class gentry, the poorer communities would have most likely have been too far removed from the exclusive circles of court-life and the degree of interest therein through conversation is debatable. This said, considering the most likely commissioner for the painting was ‘a noblewomen and sole heiress to a vast family fortune’ the likelihood is that the painting is reflecting upper-middle class concerns with the (by this point quite ambiguous) distinctions between being a courtesan and prostitution, which therefore certainly promotes a topical social concern. This should however be brought back to, and rooted in, counterreformation thought on how one should conduct one’s life and the broader concern for perceived irreligious societal institutions and the types of behaviour that goes in them (for after all, this painting is about, and rooted in, reform).
    Sub-content aside, we must, however, stress the importance of the prime function of the painting as religious artefact as well as family objects and their sense of belonging to the family lineage, and match this sub-conception and topical concern of one moment in time, with a more explicit and practical meaning for the general and later viewer, upon personal piety and transformation of the individual (which was done well enough, to a degree). Given the great popularity of the Magdalene as a saint for worship (which we see not only through the fashionable ownership of Magdalene paintings throughout the 16th and 17th centuries but also through the proliferation of Magdalene icons in convents for nuns, as a figure whose spiritual strivings were to be emulated) and through the importance of her own personal story to the populace we can see that the transformability after an early life of indulging in the tactile-sensuality of the terrestrial, is an image that can be sympathised with by the populace, thus making a ‘Magdalene complex’, to coin a phrase, in each individual, as an archetypal figure to associate with. It is by this popularity that would strike a connection between the Mary painted here and the fashionable Magdalene depictions and offers a similar symbolic meaning to the viewer. By this means, I think it most important to stress the connection between the 17th century Roman viewer, man or woman (as the soul was often perceived as feminine anyway) and Mary/Magdalene; making this painting both didactic and offering transformable powers through the interplay between Mary and Martha, through the tactile and mental-spiritual dichotomy depicted and most importantly through the viewer-painting communion and meditation on the depicted symbolism.
    Firstly in the process of persuading the viewer to emulate Mary and thus receive Martha’s own persuasion is the initial understanding of the marked difference between Martha and Mary. This dichotomy is observable through (as has been pointed out in the article) the expensive silky embroidered fabrics that Mary is wearing, accentuating her feminine undulating and curvaceous contours and emphasising the tactile sensuous dimension of her nature and of our desire to feel those fabrics, and consequently our own pleasure in this vein. Whereas Martha wears a plain wool costume that does not bring about this same experience in the viewer, and in this capacity can be seen to demonstrate a transcending of the terrestrial and the sensuous-tactile with the more practical dress devoid of self-indulgence.
    Secondly, the sensual is of course heightened by the light falling across Mary’s face, collar-bone and breast, further sensualised by the slight turning of the head to bring about the curvaceous and shaded line of her neck and its erogenous character (all described well enough in the article and further establishing a connection with the Magdalene). However, what was not mentioned was the symbolic meaning of placement. Left was connected to the feminine, right to the masculine, or in this case, the spiritual-soul element of Martha upon the left, whose hand gesture (ever identified as the expressions of the states of the soul) exemplifies the chaste and pure soul by this symbolic means. Whilst the right, symbolic of the masculine, may represent here tactile-sensually of the terrestrial, synonymous of Mary’s character, and more generally the more famous Magdalene. However, and what is crucial in the viewer’s own pious contemplation and meditation before the painting, is the transformation and conversion that occurs. For we see the left hand, the feminine and inward element, placed upon the mirror as metaphor of Mary’s contemplation and the conversion begun in her heart (viewers would be well aware of the desert experience of Magdalene and aware that her own rich clothes would soon be replaced by humbler garments and therefore expect the same both in Mary and themselves) and the right hand, already associated with the terrestrial and earthly element, is holding the orange blossom of purity, as a picture of the outer manifestation of her inward transformation and conversion (look at the mirror, the metaphor for her mental reflection, she is literally seeing the light of redeeming Christianity, internally/mentally).
    Furthermore, as pointed out in the above article, the mirror then further acts to prompt the viewer to contemplate the symbolism and reflect deeply upon the concepts imparted here, as a tool of appropriate schooling from counterreformation thought. And as very well demonstrated above in the article, the mirror acts as agent in the ‘conversation’ between the conceptual content of the painting and the mental content of a viewer’s individual values; an active agent and one bestowed with a certain power to persuade, as Martha does to Mary and to our own sensual desires within the stage of terrestrial and tactile pleasure.
    It is a power which, lastly, may well have taken on magical properties through acting as an agent between Mary in the higher realms and the individual in prayer before her image.
    It is my main concern here just to stress the importance of the viewer’s connection with the life of Magdalene as archetypal transformed-sensualist and in the overcoming of one’s own sensual pleasures in life, pleasures of which at this point greatly afflicted with catholic taste. Thus presenting generally a Magdalene complex in both the scene of Martha and Mary, as an archetypal concept to connect with, and as a complex taken for granted to exist in the viewer, which needed to be reckoned with and overcome, and furthermore the necessity of art to deliver such paintings as aids in spiritual contemplation (which didn’t appear to have a great role or inclusion in the article above). With this in mind we should be mindful of the fact that for contemporary Roman’s living an appropriate life for less time in an already full and seemingly unending purgatory was a prime concern both of the church and the reformed citizens and something which needs to be made very clear. It was a real and highly unpleasant affair that everyday life could alter for the better, and which the church attempted to aid through a tight regime on appropriate content and theme in religious paintings. As such, this painting should be seen as an aid in prayer and contemplation upon the individuals own ‘Magdalene complex’ and not just a naturalistic representation of a particular scene from Mary and Martha’s life to adorn a wall. James O’Neill

  3. It is interesting that no one, on any analysis of this artwork (that I have read) points out the obvious fact of the pregnancy of Mary, and no one points out the subtle reference to the possibility of Mary and Martha being one and the same individual. The classical opposite of sides to a personality. Of course to claim this would be thought of as heretical, yet its symbolically solid. Hence the mirror which is a symbol of reflection, and the almost mirror like gaze the two women have of each other.

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