According to a prominent scholar of orientalism, Edward Said, orientalism is a way of coming to terms with the Orient (East) which helps define Europe with a contrasting image. Said defines orientalism as “a style of thought based on an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the Orient and, most of the time, the Occident. One way to understand orientalism is by studying the iconography of the East and West which continues to shape our understanding. My goal here is to assess the power structures behind the orientalist art and how they correlate with images of Mary Magdalene, an icon of the prostitute, sinner, and fallen woman in Christian art. The depictions of women in the Orient and the West- particularly Christian art, are based on the myth of what women should be as defined by men in power.

Orientalist travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries have provided provocative and enticing representations of the sensual and exotic life of the Middle East. Fascinating portrayals of “Middle Eastern” women plague the plethora of paintings from this time period. In these paintings, women are depicted as patiently sitting and attentively waiting for a sexual encounter. The European imagination lost itself in fervent enthusiasm.  

Common themes between paintings of women in harems made by male artists include an emphasis on female nudity, frailty, sexual provocativity, and decadence within the harem.

 

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque 1814.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque was one of the most iconic and widely circulated oil paintings of Middle Eastern women in a harem.The harem is defined as “the household to which access is forbidden, and particularly the women’s quarters” (Encyclopedia of Islam, 3rd Edition). The painting is emblematic of the Western imagination for overtly sexualizing and erotocizing the idea of the harem. Ingres completely embellished the image with Eastern exocitism. The woman’s skin is depicted as soft and supple. Her pose makes her appear almost without bones and curvacious. Ingres elongated her female vertebrae and spread out the body of the woman. Next to her are extravagant curtains that are not veiling her. Thus, the viewer’s gaze is completely enamored by her corporeal body.

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Le Marché d’Esclaves shows a pervasive odalisque female sex slave. The woman was made into an object of sexual eroticization by the male gaze and the painting became an icon of orientalist art. The woman in the painting has been stripped by a slave trader and presented to men for examination. The prospective buyer checks out her teeth. This disturbing scene suggests she is a spectacle for the viewer. Truth be told, these depictions were far from accurate of the  East. Women were overly eroticized to the point that they were rendered as objects and the Middle East became a place of an “exotic” lifestyle. The harem was labeled as a world of beautiful and sexual women waiting together for men to choose them. Orientalist artwork depicting the East dismisses the problems and individual nuances of the complicated lives the women in them led, both in relation to each other and their husbands. The iconization of the over-exaggeration of the sexuality of women in art doesn’t end with the orientalists.

Jules Lefebvre (1876), Mary Magdalene in the Cave.

In the West, Mary Magdalene was labeled and portrayed as the most iconic sinner, prostitute, and “fallen” woman. This iconization and myth of her as a prostitute, sinner, fallen and ultimately reformed woman was created by Pope Gregory the Great in 591 A.D. In his Homily 33, he explicitly reminded people that,

“She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark….the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.”

He read his vision of Mary Magdalene into distinctly separate scriptural texts he quoted. All the individual nuances of each Gospel were disregarded to create a unified image of Mary as a prostitute, sinner, and reformed woman. However, there was no mention of Mary as a prostitute within the Synoptic Gospels themselves. According to the Bible, she was the first to encounter the resurrected Christ after his crucifixion. Unfortunately, this image of Mary Magdalene in Pope Gregory’s sermon persisted for centuries. Mary’s image was woven into that of a prostitute because men in power didn’t want to fathom her as a powerful and authoritative figure like she was in the Gospel of Mary and in the Bible.

Similar to the orientalist art, Jules Lefebvre’s Mary Magdalene in the Cave  depicts Mary Magdalene in the nude as a spectacle for men. Lefebvre chose to have her on her back and curled up with her face covered in order to depict her in a vulnerable position. Lefebvre painted her with her arms covering her face. He depicted her as hiding her face in shame so as to put her shame on display. She is ashamed of the supposed sins attributed to her. The intentional hiding of her face makes the viewer focus on her displayed body. This intentional framing of her arms covering her face leaves her for the viewer to see and completely absorb.   Her genitals are covered by the pose of her legs. Her long hair falls and stretches to the ground but doesn’t cover her. Her hair, abundant in length and colored with a bright reddish stain, is sexualized and she is eroticized. This type of image lends itself to the historical trend of portraying Mary Magdalene as the repentant sinner. You must be wondering: why would she be iconized as a prostitute, sinner, and redeemed figure when there was no scriptural basis for it? This is because the myth of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute and redeemed sinner allows her to be an example for other women who should repent too.

Just like the orientalist art “others” the East, the West others Mary Magdalene by tying her sexuality to sin. This association to Mary Magdalene perpetuated the notion that a fallen woman can be saved, too, as long as she puts away her sexuality and asks for forgiveness through Jesus.

It is evident that the “othering” of women in both Western art and orientalist art was perpetrated by the West in order to create an image of what women’s sexuality ought to be. While the myth of Mary Magdalene loans itself to entangled notions of how to redeem women and suppress their authority, orientalist art constructs cultural and visual myths that stereotype women based on the notions regarding women in a particular location.

Mary Magdalene repenting at Jesus’ feet in The Last Temptation of Christ 1988.