Rodin Works: Christ and mary magdalenE


As Rodin sometimes confided to his friends, he had abandaned his Catholic faith after a period of intense repentment in a monastery, following the death of his sister Maria. He rather fostered a pantheist vision, in which any element of Life and Nature could be perceived as a representation of truth and beauty. His occupation with a clearly religious subject like 'Christ and Mary Magdalene' in 1894 is an exception and needs some attention.

For an explanation, Elsen points to a number of incidents that utterly frustrated Rodin during the early 1890's: his design for a 'Monument to Victor Hugo' was declined in 1890, because it did not match to Injalbert's contribution to the Panthéon; the installation of the 'Monument to Claude Lorraine' in  June 1892 was a public disaster, so that Rodin's assistants had to travel to Nancy and adapt the pedestal; the Calais commitee had no funds to cast 'The Burghers of Calais' and in 1895 ignored the artist's preferences regarding location and pedestal. Finally, his passionate affair with Camille Claudel had reached the stage of permanent crisis, Camille and Rose combatting each other openly. In this adversary situation, the sculptor could easily identify with the character of Christ - a man with a higher mission, betrayed, captured and tormented. For solace, a kneeling 'Meditation' was added, holding the the tortured Saviour in her arms. Maybe it was no coincidence Rodin at his point in time evoked the figure of Mary Magdalene, bearing the name of his beloved sister. 

Antonio Canova, Maddalene repente, marble copy, 1810, HermitageFélicien Rops, frontispice But as noted by Steinberg, de Caso/Sanders and Jamison, Mary Magdalene's adoration of Christ was not without erotic connotation. De Caso/Sanders point to the Mystic Union between devout women and the body of Christ, and list some art-historical examples that may have inspired Rodin to include this saint - a repenting prostitute like 'The Old Courtesan' - in his work: the well-known statue by Canova (1796) showing a sensual Mary Magdalene with shoved-up skirts, the converted strumpet Esther in Balzac's 'Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes' (1838) and Félicien's Rops's frontispice for 'L' Amante du Christ' by Rodolphe Darzens. Especially the drawing by Rops, which Rodin may have known, conflates religious worship with carnual stimulation and unconcealed fantasies of sexual submissiveness.

The alternative titles support Elsen's analysis and add new layers of meaning: 'Prometheus and the Oceanid' refers to the rebellious Titan who had stolen the fire from the Olympus and brought it back to mortal mankind; as a punishment, Prometheus was chained to a rock, visited daily by an enormous eagle eating his liver. Gifted with forethought and unwilling to accept the compromises Zeus offered him, he was perceived as the prototype of the uncorruptable hero, suffering for saving humanity from the dark and the cold. The drawing by Christian Schüssele (1824-79) shows an idealized, suffering Prometheus during his daily ordeal.

The third denomination for  Rodin's work, 'The Genius and Pity', puts the couple in the context of the sculptor's allegorical studies on the relationship between the gifted artist and his muse - a subject Rodin extensively explored while designing his 'Monument to Victor Hugo'. Another work dealing with this subject, 'The Poet and Love' (1896), shows the male protagonist in a pose reminding of 'The Torturted Prometheus', painted by Gustave Moreau in 1868.

To the Romantic mind, is was not uncommon to identify the roles of Christ, Prometheus and Poet/Genius/Artist with each other; another example in Rodin's own work is 'The Thinker', merging Dante's role as a brooding artist-philosopher with that of Christ in the Judgement seatF. Holland day, The Last Seven Words of Christ, ca. 1900Paul Gauguin, Yellow Christ, 1889, Albright Knox Gallery: the triumphant  reversal of Golgotha's agony. But also other artists from the turn of the century  associated the innovative virtues of genius with pain and hardship.


Mary Magdalene, on the other hand, assumes the role of the Oceanid, comforting Prometheus in Aeschylus drama , respectively that of the Muse  - the proper function of 'The Meditation' in Rodin's rejected 'Monument to Victor Hugo', portraying another uncorruptable, exiled hero.

Camille Claudel, Système cellulaire, showing Rodin in chainsThe fourth strand of meaning - underneath the religious, mythological and allegorical layers - is auto-biographical. According to Elsen, Rodin produced his 'Christ and Mary Magdalene' group without being commissioned, as a portrait of his breaking-up relationship with Camille, who possibly had been his model for the  'Meditation' figure. His hands fastened to the wall behind him, Rodin's Christ-Prometheus-Genius is not able to embrace the woman adoring him. Except for the arms, his pose is nearly identical to the biting caricature portrait Camille sketched in 1892, 'The cellular System', showing Rodin chained to the wall of a prison cell, guarded by Rose with a broom. I could not determine yet if Rodin by 1895 did have knowledge of this sketch, but the similarity of both form and motif  is almost too strong to be purely coincidental.

Still in 1894, Camille would start developing 'Maturity', based on sketches she had confided to her brother Paul by the end of 1893. Camille's trio designates who is absent in Rodin's composition: the jealous old woman Rose Beuret, dragging the undecisive man in the center away from his begging young lover. Considered as the counterpart to 'Christ and Mary Magdalene, 'Le dieu envolé' gains a very concrete meaning: Christ has once and for all ascended to heaven.

In 1907, a few lines from a poem by Laurent Tailhade were attached to a reproduction of Rodin's group, adding to its interpretation as a valediction to the sculptor's pupil, lover and spiritual companion (see also 'Farewell'):

For one evening he bent towards you his head
For when his great soul was ready to take flight
You received at his feet his immortal farewell.

plaster, MuRo, 1894. Photo: Bruno Jarret, 1979Thyssen_Bornemisza Collection, marble, 102x77x70cm'Christ and Mary Magdalene' was first saved as a plaster, now kept in the reserves of Meudon. In this early version, the bodies of Chtist and Mary Magdalene do not actually touch each other. Only in the marble versions subsequently carved, the marcottage of the 'Meditation' and the Christ-Prometheus-Genius is adapted into a unified design, allowing for a more natural joining - just like in the case of 'The Fallen Angel', created ca. one year later in 1895. In this latter work, also based on an assemblage of disparate figures,  the 'Crouching Woman' has taken over the function of supporting, comforting and deploring her defeated partner, and here as well, her solacing embrace can be read as intimate caressing.

The marble carvings of 'Christ and Mary Magdalene are exhibited in the Musée Rodin and in the Collection Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza. From the Thyssen-Bornemisza marble copy, new plasters were drawn, now exhibited in the San Francisco and Maryhill Museums.


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