Mary Magdalene as Melancholy: a guest post by Ellyn Siftar

"Put your hands on the wheel, let the golden age begin."  --Beck


photograph by Ian Kindle



When I walk in the woods in late October and the golden leaves crunch underfoot, I'm filled with the most blissful and conflicted of emotions: melancholy.  It’s the same feeling I got when I said goodbye to my eldest as she walked into her college dorm room freshman year, the same feeling I get every time I listen to a song from my youth and it brings to mind the pain and bliss of adolescent newness. Yet I wasn’t ready to be so powerfully punched by this melancholy via a painting, but Artemesia Gentileschi’s “Mary Magdalene as Melancholy” hit me in the gut when I saw it for the first time last week. 

"Mary Magdalene as Melancholy" by Artemesia Gentileschi

Mary Magdalene and I have an intimate relationship. When I first learned about her from a Catholic friend as a ten year old, I was incredibly intrigued and it set the stage for the following year when a book fictionalizing her life fell into my lap.  This book became one of those books that continues to reach out to me even today. Mary’s story of abuse, forgiveness, and her tender relationship to the man Jesus, kindled a deep craving in me and became a touch point for me in understanding myself as both a woman and a follower of Christ.  Gentileschi’s painting is a sinking into that which is comforting: her hand in her hair, her soft, closed eyes.  

Here is a Mary Magdalene who has reconciled her past with grace.  This melancholy is an aesthetic that has only a hint of depression, and is more akin to a looking back, a contemplation and yearning. Gentileschi's painting is unlike the penitent Magdalene paintings of the baroque era, which focused on her shame. 

A note from Lauren: For comparison, here is Caravaggio's "Penitent Magdalene." Caravaggio and Gentileschi were contemporaries and friends, but their paintings of Magdalene evoke different emotions.  I couldn't say it better than the Jesuit poet, Giuseppe Silos (1673), when he describes Caravaggio's painting: "We can see the silent remorse hidden in her conscience, and in the depths of her heart she is burned by a secret flame."


Artemesia's painting of "Mary Magdalene as Melancholy" brings to mind this passage written by Kierkegaard:


"Besides my other numerous circle of acquaintances I have one more intimate confidant-my melancholy. In the midst of my joy, in the midst of my work, she waves to me, calls me to one side, even though physically I stay put. My melancholy is the most faithful mistress I have known, what wonder, then, that I love her in return."
-Søren Kierkegaard


I also connect Beck's song, "The Golden Age," with Artemesia's painting.  Several dear friends have commended the artist Beck to me over the years and yet I have never really listened.   I popped on a mix after a particularly glorious run in the golden leaves under an azure sky and this song knocked me out.

"The Golden Age"

Put your hands on the wheel
Let the golden age begin
Let the window down
Feel the moonlight on your skin
Let the desert wind
Cool your aching head
Let the weight of the world
Drift away instead

These days I barely get by
I don't even try

It's a treacherous road
With a desolated view
There's distant lights
But here they're far and few
And the sun don't shine
Even when it's day
You gotta drive all night
Just to feel like you're ok

These days I barely get by
I don't even try...



For me, the deeper desire of melancholy is a letting go, an acceptance of powerlessness. The leaves fall and are crushed underfoot, the seasons change, children grow up and move away and for a time, life is fallow, But the profound trust it takes to let go allows for a fallow field, where seeds have fallen and are resting in the comfort below the white snow, and will grow upwards into the warm spring air.

Ellyn Siftar lives in Bethlehem, PA.  She is a beautiful, strong, creative woman.  She is my good friend, and also a wife, and a mother of four children. Her interests and talents include (but are not limited to) music (singing and piano), painting, drawing, calligraphy, and teaching.  She runs, hikes, and dances with vitality and passion.  She is a member of Trinity Episcopal Church in Bethlehem, where she has been a dedicated volunteer and occasional teacher for the youth program.  She juggles several jobs, but always manages to take care of herself and stay true to her priorities.  Ellyn is currently going back to school (she will be at Moravian starting in January) where she is investigating the intersection between compassion, environmentalism, and art.