Mary Magdalene is a popular presence in women’s issues. Her mysterious personhood is being rediscovered through a vast array of historical findings, research, and discoveries. We are now able to re-evaluate the evidence for how women are holding the balance. Women contributed more than what has been recognized. The church congregations and clergy are invited to reflect on the extraordinary mind, the feminine perspective offers. We cannot ignore the social statuesque that confined the identities of women, Jews, Gentiles, wealthy, poor, or pagans over the past 2,000 years. Since the time of church formation, first-century women were active participants in an honor/shame-based culture in which gender, status, class, and ethnicity were interwoven. This behavior and its engrained message limited women on many levels.
WOMEN HOLDING THE BALANCE, ESSENTIAL ART AND ICONOGRAPHY FOR WOMEN
Holy women are mentioned in the bible, at least a few times. Mostly Mary the virgin mother and Mary Magdalene are mentioned. Today those women holding the balance are waiting for a change. The absences of women in principal events in the Christ story. Art and iconography for women are blossoming through image, music, poetry, research, physiology, and text. Why are so few women portrayed as messengers, teachers, healers, wisdom crones, disciples, leaders, sorceresses, prophets, or mystics?
In a two-volume cannon of images for Russian classic iconography, there are 500 sacred images. Outside of Mary the mother of Jesus, the collection includes 14 images of women and most are from the old testament. It is a pitiful female representation in a comprehensive collection of templates. There are 290 images of male saints.
WE HAVE NOT HEARD WOMEN’S VOICES IN EQUAL MEASURE TO THAT OF MEN.
Orthodox Icon theologians are keen to correct those who “break iconographic rules”. This is expected. The male-dominated authorities fear that changing the images changes the story. Essentially classic Iconography and sacred art has not needed to change the message or the story. I have been posting articles about Mary Magdalene to open minds and generate conversation. Women iconographers today can and will elevate the Byzantine images of women as symbols of God’s love. Love of God has no bias or preference where gender is concerned.
ART AND ICONOGRAPHY FOR WOMEN BY WOMEN
Mary Magdalene is the most important example of a woman devoted and committed to Christ’s teachings, second to Mary, his Mother. It is a tragedy theologians did not give women in general more of a voice in Scripture. This absent voice can and will be rectified through art and iconography because women are holding the balance. We are keeping the iconography tradition alive today. Women who teach, give visual seminars, zoom meetings, and develop conversation groups and conferences are using new visuals designed and created through the art and iconography of women about women.
MANY WILL AGREE, we need POWERFUL IMAGES OF WOMEN IN THE CHURCH.
The classic acceptable templates for the female image are overly simplified. Their visual attributes are dull and lifeless and do not provoke thought. It is within reason for women iconographers to begin creating an iconographal language about female saints. The most common attributes we find are them holding a cross or spice jar. Could we embellish their vestments with mystic symbols and portray them with raised hands to bless and serve? Can we incorporate orbs of wisdom, open scrolls with text, books, and chalices for healing and sacrament? Why not crown them spiritually with God’s blessing as faithful women? These attributes would amplify and illustrate essential art and iconography for Women who have served as dignified teachers, servants, mystics, and healers.
I suggest if we had more images of powerful women in the church, women would break through the glass ceiling given to them. The church authorities gave us the Queen of Heaven, the Blessed Virgin Mother Mary. She is silent, contemplative, and filled with divine suffering. There is more left unsaid by women holding the balance. The women were present at the Baptism, Pentecost, Dormition of Mary,
THEY MODELED THE PERFECT WOMAN AFTER THE MOTHER OF JESUS.
Women in Iconography are few. They do not appear in the Last Supper, Pentecost, the Baptism, The Assertion, the Wedding at Cana, or anywhere Christ is Teaching. The Bible mentions women with Jesus throughout His life, death, and resurrection. Their devotion is intense, with no fear of death and a deep understanding of transformation. They were there with Christ; the bible did not name them or explain their bravery after His death. It is time to depict powerful images of women in art and iconography.
We will have to invent new meaningful portraits for iconography today. Mary Magdalene may have been wed to Jesus and fled to France with a child, however, this part of her story is not the core reason we elevate her. She was an influential leader worthy of recognition like so many other women in art history.
AS AN ICONOGRAPHER for THREE DECADES, I CANNOT REMAIN SILENT.
One of the Greatest Saints, Teresa of Avila (1535), the first female Doctor of the Church was a woman holding the balance. She was told by her confessor to not pray. The priest told her that her thoughts were of the Devil. Imagine what she had to endure to keep her interior balance. It is time to go deeper into gender discussions and change by looking at the roots of this bias against women. We have been directed and influenced by a male-dominated society for too long.
There is nothing incorrect or demonic about elevating women as creatures loved by God, cherished by Jesus, and filled with female wisdom. Most women know all too well how we are sinners. We are the flowing-haired temptress, disobedient, witches, and seductive force that men cannot resist dominating. We have been told to know our place.
I say, Let’s unpack that wording. Why do we not ask men to rise above their animal nature, and go beyond craving sex? Why do they command our silence? Why are men not accountable for war, trafficking children, the source of abortion, the weapons industry, corruption, greed, and raw physical power over women and children? We need to help one another to cross the bridge of our difference and celebrate common ground. It is time for women holding the balance to inspire conversations where both sides speak. We need to get comfortable with who we are and what calls us to be. All Christians profess to love God and to live in the Light. Let us begin.
Mary Jane Millers’ books on Iconography. In Light of Women: One Woman’s journey with Icons highlights Mary Magdalene and her Gnostic Gospel Text found in Jordon.
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