The Model for Conversion: Images of Mary Magdalen in Seventeenth Century Catholic Counter Reformation Culture
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During the Catholic Counter Reformation (c. 1545-1648), the Catholic Church sought to convert individuals who had left the Church in favor of Protestantism. With the help of multiple councils and meetings, the Catholic Church established a clear set of rules regarding the representation of religious images. Inherent in these rules was the belief that religious images should be clearly understood by both believers and non-believers, with the hopes that these works would encourage people to repent for their sins and, most importantly, reconvert to Catholicism. Many saints and biblical figures were used as models for conversion and morality, but the figure of Mary Magdalen stands separate from other examples of conversion imagery because of the overwhelming prevalence of her likeness within Catholic Counter Reformation culture. Mary Magdalen became a model for conversion because of the story of her leaving her life of sin in order to follow the teachings of Jesus. In fact, she is actually a composite figure of multiple Mary figures and unnamed female sinners within biblical texts. Specifically, Pope Gregory the Great's sixth-century sermon on the Magdalen misidentifies her as a sinner and a prostitute, and it serves as a point of origin for over nearly 1500 years of misrepresentation of the Magdalen as a repentant figure. Mary Magdalene is a central figure for the Counter Reformation because of the stories that came to surround her. She can also be seen as a model for women, who were, as a class of people, constantly positioned by Church doctrine as the lesser sex during this time period. And yet at the same time, many female Counter Reformation writers and artists used the Magdalen as a muse, so that she also served as an early feminist model for conversion and penitence in the seventeenth century.