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Mary Symmetrical and Mary Nonsymmetrical – A Hitherto Undetected Difference in the Iconography of the Two Most Important Women in the New Testament?

W. Seuntjens

Dutch Academy of ‘Pataphysics, Amsterdam

Received 25.03.2014, accepted 18.06.2014 published 31.07.2014

JUnQ, 4, 2, Article – Rapid Communication, 18-27, 2014

Symmetry is an esthetic quality both in art and in life. Symmetry is generally associated with beauty, evolutionary fitness, and perfection whereas asymmetry is associated with the lack of beauty, diminished evolutionary fitness, and imperfection. The physical aspect of praying behavior is almost exclusively bilaterally symmetrical. In the Christian tradition, praying with hands held together can be done in three ways: symmetrically, quasi-symmetrically, and asymmetrically. In the history of Christian art the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene are undoubtedly the two most frequently depicted women. Contrary to expectation, the praying postures in which the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene are depicted are not random. The Virgin Mary prays most often symmetrically whereas Mary Magdalene prays predominantly nonsymmetrically (first rule). Moreover, both Marys pray mainly symmetrically in depictions of pre- and post-Passion scenes whereas they pray mostly nonsymmetrically in Passion scenes (second rule). The exception to the second rule is the theme of The Penitent Mary Magdalene, in which Mary Magdalene is depicted mostly praying nonsymmetrically (third rule). As a tentative explanation of these differences it is proposed that: (1) The Virgin Mary is for the most part depicted symmetrically because she is the epitome of serene perfection whereas the more often nonsymmetrically depicted Mary Magdalene is the embodiment of emotional perfectability. (2) In Passion scenes both Marys are shown mainly in nonsymmetrical praying postures because of the extreme emotionality whereas in pre- and post-Passion scenes they both display the more beatific symmetrical praying postures. (3) The Penitent Mary Magdalene is generally depicted in the emotional nonsymmetrical praying posture because in that particular part of the post-Passion period Mary Magdalene’s sainthood was still in the balance.

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