A long time ago (over four years ago!) I wrote a post on the depictions of hirsute Mary Magdalene (available HERE). In the late Middle Ages artists often depicted Magdalene in the wildness, being lifted up by the angels, while her whole body is covered with hair. Back then I have provided the most popular explanation for that iconographical phenomena; it is usually assumed that Magdalene was depicted as hairy because the artists took that particular element from the legend of other saint, that is Mary of Egypt, who spent many ears in the wildness until her clothes turned to dust and she was only covered with her long hair.
Today, after some research, I have reconsidered that issue and I decided to write another post. Presently, I think that for the medieval viewer hirsute Magdalene had her own symbolic meaning and it was not related to any confusion of two saints of the same name.
First of all it should be stressed that in the late Middle Ages in Central Europe (in the 15th and early 16th century) both these saints were venerated and most likely people did distinct their legends. For example, in Cracow there used to be a chapel dedicated to St Mary of Egypt (it used to be located at Wawel Hill, but did not survive) and there used to be a church dedicated to St Mary Magdalene (not survived either), which means that the citizens were familiar with both those saints and most likely did not confuse them with each other. However Mary of Egypt was mainly venerated in the Eastern Church, her image has been placed on the altar-wing of the altar dedicated to St. John the Almsgiver, funded by Mikołaj Lanckoroński of Brzezie in 1504 for the Augustinians Church in Kazimierz by Cracow (today the altarpiece is in the National Museum in Cracow).
Hirsute Mary Magdalene is really hairy all over her body – usually except for her knees (bald from kneeling and praying?) and sometimes she also has… naked breasts! And that, in my opinion, is a key element for the interpretation of such depictions.
In the late medieval art, especially in tapestries, wall-paintings or at the margins of decorated manuscripts, we may often spot the images of so called Wild Men. They were hirsute and aggressive; they were often depicted as fighting with clubs, or as pursuing ladies in the woods.
Untamed lust of Wild Men was most likely rooted in the ancient figures of mythological satires or god Pan: half-human creatures with enormous sex drive. Their favourite occupation was pursuing nymphs in the woods, but when there were no nymphs to abuse, they settled for whatever came along.
In the medieval art Wild Men symbolised sinful humanity; but it is important to stress that sometimes artists depicted Wild Women as well! They were also lustful and they had strong maternal instinct; they were often depicted with children and with naked breasts, which referred both to nursing offspring and to sex-appeal. I am pretty convinced that the medieval viewer, looking at a hirsute Mary Magdalene, most likely saw her as a Wild Woman!
Mary Magdalene was an unusual Sinner-Saint: she was not a virgin and not a martyr, but – according to the legend – a former prostitute. Her sin was rooted in carnal aspects and at the same time her salvation was a result of her love to Christ. Hairy Magdalene in ecstasy, lifted up by the angels, is a perfect image of converted harlot, those depictions perfectly reflect the paradox of Sinner-Saint. I also think that the images of hirsute Magdalene may be juxtaposed with enigmatic depictions of Wild Woman with Unicorn, which were popular in the 15th century, but for us they are now difficult to interpret. Those images (e.g. in prints or tapestries) are now usually described by the scholars as depictions of pure love, combining contradictory symbols of lust (Wild Woman) and chastity (Unicorn), but the interpretation of this motif is in fact still an open question.
Mary Magdalene is a carnal saint, not pure, but at the same time she was a closest person to the Saviour himself. Her cult was very complex and popular at the dawn of the Early Modern times, and later had been much modified at the time of Counter-reformation. It was then when Magdalene changed from the mystic enjoying the ecstasy in the wildness into a sinner repenting in the dessert – which, by the way, did not deprive her images of an erotic context. In any case I think it is not a coincidence that hirsute Magdalene disappeared from the Western art around the same time when Wild Men lost their popularity in visual culture. Perhaps further research will bring us some new ideas on this interesting aspects of late medieval art?
I also recommend you my other previous post: Pregnant Mary Magdalene?