Encounter With a Statuesque Magdalene

With the July 22 feast of St. Mary Magdalene approaching a few years back, I found myself stopping to wonder why there was no church in Rome dedicated to La Maddalena, as she is known in Italy.

Then it dawned on me that I've been inside La Maddalena many times. It's situated near the Pantheon, very near my old apartment. I knew the name of the piazza — but the church, like many in Rome, does not have an identifying name outside.

Next time I went to Rome, I decided to seek out the Magdalene in this church. I wanted to see how it was that I had managed to miss her image even when she had been my neighbor. It seemed odd to not remember even one painting or statue, given that many of the most famous religious artists depicted her with memorably red, flowing hair to symbolize her pre-conversion life. In others she was shown as an obvious penitent, grateful that Jesus had cast seven devils from her (see Luke 8:1-3). Her long hair, according to tradition, covered her when she went off to the desert after the Crucifixion. She usually was shown with a jar of ointment, connecting her to the Mary who had bought the expensive oil at Bethany to anoint Jesus' head (see Mark 14:3).

I followed the little street in front of the Pantheon up the hill to the church. When I stepped onto the Piazza della Maddalena and took a good look at the church, I was surprised at the charming and elaborate façade: a waving, merry rococo with flourishes and saints in niches gesticulating in grand Roman fashion. How many times had I looked past this without drinking in the details? Later I'd learn that the concave façade, by Giuseppe Sardi, was added about 1725, after the reconstructed church was built over a 13th-century chapel. It's been recently restored.

Inside, a regal feeling pervades, although the church is small and more humbly arrayed, art-wise, than other nearby churches. Its elegant columns and pilasters, vaults and side altars give it the opulence of a large private chapel of a very important Roman family. Above the door, an organ and choir loft demonstrate, in luxurious fashion, the Counter-Reformation's effort to project the joys of the Church. Dramatic touches meant to bring a smile to the viewer abound.

Up Close and Personal

Yet, for all my appreciation of its architectural splendor, I'd often come here just to sit quietly and meditate or pray just off the main tourist thoroughfare. Rome is not splendor-challenged, after all. This church had become yet other glorious place that I'd never really looked at closely. Guidebooks gave it a few words only.

The light from the celebrated architect Carlo Fontana's cupola gave a mystical glow to the main altar below, where a painting showed — who else? — the Maddalena. She soared amid joyful angels, contemplating the empty cross they carried in the clouds. At the sides of the altar, evocative bas-reliefs told the story of the three Marys at the foot of the cross (see Matthew 27:55) and of the moment when Mary, overcome with joy at seeing her Savior, reaches out to touch him (John 20:17).

I walked around the church looking for more signs of her. The vault above, by one Michaelangelo Cerruti (1732), portrays various scenes from her life I hadn't noticed earlier.

Satisfied that I had found what I had come to see, I was about to leave by a side door when I came upon a figure I will never forget: a plain, tall, wooden statue of Mary looked out from a niche, her gentle expression no longer ashamed or penitent. Instead she bears the look of one who has experienced, up close and personal, the saving grace of Christ. She is beautiful in a way the more dramatic images miss. She is in heavenly love and at peace, the torments of the past having ended.

At that moment I thought I was really seeing Mary of Magdala for the first time. The words of Jesus when he appeared to her at his empty tomb had been answered. “Who are you looking for?” Her expression answers his question with great, understated eloquence. In that same expression, Mary's unique position as a disciple comes through just as loud and clear. She who had been forgiven had followed him, stayed with him during his agony — had been given the joy of seeing him that morning, before the others were even aware the stone had been rolled away. Now she knows perfect peace. I know that statue will be one of the first places I stop when I next return to Rome.

Healing Help

I decided to stay longer at the church of the Maddalena after that experience. I soon noticed a Roman man and woman kneeling at a side altar in front of a painting I remembered from earlier visits. The gold-crowned Madonna della Salute (health) and Child has a transcendent glow that has been radiating since the 16th century. Local people go there to pray daily, for relief from illness of any sort.

This church, in fact, has long been administered by the healing Order of Camillans, founded by St. Camillus de Lellis, who died here in 1591. His altar in the main church shows him in his black robe with a red cross, and there his body lies in the sarcophagus. That order still works throughout the world in hospitals.

To learn more of this saint and to see the magnificent rooms beyond the sacristy, follow the left aisle of the church. This sacristy's lavish beauty has made it, according to some art lovers, the most beautiful in Rome. It may well be. The decorations were added after the saint died here, as one would guess, as he lived here without luxury. His heart has been enshrined in a golden reliquary at the altar. Pilgrims come here to venerate him.

In the sacristy you might want to choose a rosary or a postcard of the Maddalena to clearly remember this plain but radiant statue of a woman who loved the Lord.

You might pause again to see her statue as you leave. It's as exciting to me as the surrounding splendor, this wooden image carved by “an unknown artist.” It's obvious that she meant what she said that day: “I have seen the Lord!”

Barbara Coeyman Hults is based in New York City.