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Mary Magdalen
mary magdalen

1862

Oil on canvas.
29.2 x 24.8cm

Without knowing the title of this painting, it would be difficult to guess that it is of a biblical figure. Mary Magdalen was the only character from the bible that Sandys ever painted, but this is a picture more about sex than religion.

Mary Magdalen appears in the Bible washing and anointing Christ's feet, which she then dries with her hair. Sandys refers to this event in the picture - Mary holds a jar of ointment up to her chest and her long, flowing hair fills the painting. She is also weeping - a sign that she has repented her sins to Christ. However in Victorian England a 'magdalen' was a term used for a prostitute as this was Mary's biblical profession. To a nineteenth century audience, Sandys' painting would have been interpreted as an image of a 'fallen woman' rather than biblical figure.

Sandys' possibly chose this subject as an excuse to paint yet more luxurious hair, a technically difficult feature to paint, but one that he excelled at and was clearly obsessed with. To a Victorian audience this feature would have had another meaning. Women were expected to wear their hair up or 'dressed' - undressed hair was a sign of sexual intimacy and loose morals. Many of Sandys' paintings are of women with long, flowing hair and he would have certainly known the significance of this feature. For many of these pictures he used his lover Mary Emma as a model, although, interestingly, in a portrait of her as herself her hair is tightly bound up, showing that she is a respectable woman.

Bequeathed by R.J. Colman, 1946
Museum number  NWHCM : 1951.235.1210 : F

Image ©
Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery