Through the inclusion of newly invented scenes, innovative handling of established narratives, and symbolic use of clothing and hair, the Magdalen Chapel at San Francesco in Assisi (ca. 1305–19) presents a Magdalen who successfully models Franciscan values of renunciation, penitence, and caritas, her images thus resonating throughout the Upper and Lower Churches. Yet her position at San Francesco remains equivocal. As a New Testament saint, she logically functions as a model for St. Francis. His vita, however, anachronistically transforms her life, inspiring new narrative episodes—for example, her receipt of a garment—or reshaping established scenes, as at her conversion when demons fly from her submissive body toward the very altar where Francis exorcised sinners. Despite being honored in her chapel, she consistently appears needy, a passive recipient of charity and miraculous works, rather than a miracle worker. As a female, she carries the taint of sexual sin through her exposed and eroticized body; she thus needs to be clothed by a hermit, as elsewhere at San Francesco destitute individuals are clothed by Saints Francis and Martin. A terrible sinner, she is exorcised by Christ, just as Francis posthumously exorcises pilgrims visiting his nearby tomb. And as Christ is honored by the Magdalen’s submissive washing of his feet, so Francis is honored by the humble simpleton. Not obviously a miracle-working saint, Mary Magdalen remains like the Assisi pilgrims petitioning for assistance. Yet her power as intercessor remains unchallenged as her very weaknesses offer audiences hope: if she can be saved, so can they.
Jolly, Penny Howell. "Gender, Dress, and Franciscan Tradition in the Mary Magdalen Chapel at San Francesco, Assisi." Gesta 58.1 (2019): 1-25.