There is a Provençal legend that Mary Magdalene and her brother Lazarus, expelled by persecutions from the Holy Land, traversed the Mediterranean with some companions in a frail boat with neither rudder nor mast and landed at the place called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer near Arles. Mary Magdalene came to Marseille, converted the whole of Provence, and afterwards retired to a cave on a hill by Marseille.

And every day at every hour canonical she was lifted up in the air of angels, and heard the glorious song of the heavenly companies with her bodily ears. Of which she was fed and filled with right sweet meats, and then was brought again by the angels unto her proper place, in such wise as she had no need of corporal nourishing. (Legenda Aurea)

The cave, known as La Sainte-Baume, is now a pilgrimage site. In an analogy to Mary of Egypt, the penitent Magdalene is usually depicted naked, but covered by her hair, a motif also found in the legend of Saint Agnes or Lady Godiva. This is not something that works very well in more realistic sculpture or painting. Some artists have interpreted as a sort of fur that she grew, others have taken the “covered” rather loosely, and penitent Magdalene became one of the “canonical nudes.”

Above is a 16th century polychrome lime tree statue now at the Louvre, purchased from the collection of Siegfried Lämmle in 1902. It is usually ascribed to Gregor Erhart, who died 1540. Photograph by Ricardo André Frantz.

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