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P7 - Jesus Through Art: Mary Magdalene

These activities appear in the book Jesus Through Art by Margaret Cooling by Religious and Moral Education Press.  The book is out of print.  Please advise if this book becomes in print again, and this section will be removed from the website.  The books Christianity Through Art and The Bible Through Art are still available from Religious and Moral Education Press.
Teacher notes

Saint Mary Magdalene approaching the Sepulchre, by Gian Girolamo Savoldo, active 1508-1548

Introducing the painting to the pupils

Put pupils in pairs.  Ask one pupil in each pair to think something, but to say nothing.  Can their partner guess what they are thinking?  Discuss how we might know what someone is thinking.  What clues would we look for?  In this painting, it is difficult to know what the woman is thinking, but the artist gives us clues.

Background to the Painting 

This picture was probably painted between 1530 and 1548. Gian Girolamo Savoldo (Jan Jeeroh-Iammo Savv-oll-doh) came from Brescia in Italy, though most of his working life was spent in Venice. The city behind Mary Magdalene is probably Venice. 

Savoldo painted few pictures, usually of religious subjects. His paintings are serious and thoughtful. He was concerned with the realism of light effects, and the realism of social types (contemporary people from different walks of life). Mary Magdalene looks tired and reflective: she is not some 'idealized beauty' but a real woman with real feelings. Savoldo often painted slightly mysterious evening and night scenes, showing the effects of either cool natural light or warm sunset light, candlelight and firelight. 

In this painting, Mary Magdalene is approaching the sepulchre (tomb), but appears to have turned back. She has placed her jar of ointment on a ledge. She was a follower of Jesus (page 23) and is often considered to be the prostitute who poured precious scented ointment over Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7:36-50). The jar of ointment and the red skirt, just visible in the corner, identify the woman in this painting as Mary Magdalene (red is a colour sometimes associated with prostitution). She was the first person to see Jesus alive after the Resurrection. 

Mary is wrapped in a satin cloak which reflects the early-morning light, but behind her right shoulder is the dark mass of the empty tomb. In the distance, dawn breaks over the city, but Mary, careworn and tired, does not see it. She looks straight at the onlooker, leaving them feeling uncertain about what she knows.

A Christian Understanding of the Biblical Story 

Christians believe that, although Jesus died on the day they commemorate as 'Good Friday', he rose again two days later, on the first 'Easter Sunday'. In memory of this event, every Sunday is a celebration day. The Resurrection is a key belief of Christianity, for it means that Jesus is still alive to have a relationship with people. 

Note: The Jewish Sabbath lasts from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday, so the women had to wait until Sunday morning before returning to the tomb. 

Conversation Points 

1) Mary Magdalene takes up most of the painting, and she looks straight out of the painting at the viewer.  Why do you think the artist chose to paint her in this way? 

2) Other people went to the tomb. There were three other women and two of Jesus' disciples, Peter and John. Why do you think the artist chose to depict Mary Magdalene rather than the other disciples?

3) Why do you think Mary came to the tomb? There was little she could do for Jesus, since he was already dead.


1) Pupils can drape some fabric and watch where the light shines on it. They can use pastels to draw the effect, picking out the light and shadows. Pupils can rewrite the story from Mary's point of view and the writing and the drawings can be displayed together. 

2) Pupils can experiment with 'relay' writing. One person ­writes one sentence about the painting and its story.  That person passes their paper to the second person, who adds another sentence to the story. The second person passes the paper back to the first person. This is repeated until the story is finished. 

3) Pupils can write a 'coathanger' poem about the story, using the word 'alive'. The word 'alive' is written down the centre of the page. The first line of the poem should have an 'a' in it, the second an ‘l’, etc. 

                     Alone in the half darkness 
             I am left. 
     I feel afraid, 
                   Everything has gone, 
  Then he speaks. 

(Rachel Walker)

For more activities click here 
For more activities click here

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