Body Hair in Art: Mary and Mary

Beauty standards change as do reflections of beauty and the ideal body in art. Indeed, sometimes portraits start to look alike in some eras, like in Sir Peter Lely’s entourage of heavy-lidded beauties.

In the Middle Ages to the early Renaissance, the rage was pot bellies and hairless forms.

illuminated manuscript
Book of Hours, France 15th century

(I’m not going to lie I just wanted to use this beautiful image of a man-pony – illuminated manuscripts are the best.)

last judgement painting
Beaune Altarpiece, detail, Rogier van der Weyden, 1445 – 50

Often to be portrayed hairy was to be wild or sinful. Hairiness of body equated to an animal-like nature, like the lustful satyrs, wild hair of the maenads, or the devil itself. But also, as some have noted, there might have been a historic need to remove body hair, as it could be breeding ground for lice and vermin. I mean, there is a supposed downfall in pubic lice because of public grooming.

But really, haven’t we always modified our bodies to fit some unattainable standard?

However, two figures stand out as the exact opposite of hairless: Mary of Egypt and Mary Magdalene. Both women were licentious in their youth and both gave it up when they came to Christ. And interestingly enough both are depicted as practically wearing a pelt of hair, and yet, the hair suits are seen as a sign of penance.

Mary of Egypt was a 4th-century prostitute who repented for this way of life and became a hermit. After her clothes fell away in the desert a thick pelt of hair grew and covered her body to protect her modesty. She often is holding the three loaves of bread she took into the desert. Frequently she is found in illuminated manuscripts.

Illuminated Manuscript
Mary Magdalene (holding an unguent pot), Mary of Egypt, Margaret piercing a dragon, and a martyr holding a palm, from the Queen Mary Psalter, British Library
Illuminated manuscripts
Mary and her loaves, from the Taymouth Hours, Yates Thompson, British Library
Zosimas hands Mary his cloak
Zosimas hands Mary his cloak, from the Dunois Hours, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 287r, British Library

In later depictions, she’s largely shown as an old woman wearing a shawl. I find this portrait quite moving.

painting of St. Mary of Egypt
St. Mary of Egypt, Jusepe de Ribera, 1641

I had never heard of Mary of Egypt before writing this, only about Mary Magdalene. By the Renaissance and well into today portrayals of Mary Magdalene became more popular.

Here’s where it gets confusing  – Mary of Egypt’s story became intertwined with Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene has been dragged through the mud and turned into a repentant prostitute, though the gospels never claimed this was the case. (Maybe the church was jealous she was an independent woman and Jesus appeared to her first after his Resurrection?)

After resurrection
Noli Me Tangere, Fra Angelico, 1440 – 2

In Medieval tradition, this binding of the two Marys became the force behind a penitent Mary Magdalene. She’s portrayed as an attractive woman praying for forgiveness from her sins. Often she has a wool-like coating of hair. Other times, her long hair envelops her whole body.

wood sculpture of hairy mary
Magdalena, Tilman Riemenschneider, 1490-2
illuminated manuscript
Miniature accompanying prayers relating to Mary Magdalen, from the Sforza Hours

But again, why? I have so many questions.

Hair is political and it can be an expression of identity, sexuality, tribe, etc. So maybe there isn’t a solid reason behind this. Like a lot of symbolism, there’s not a clear answer.

If the hair is to protect her modesty, then why are Mary’s breasts popping out of otherwise perfectly secure pelt.

Mary Magdalene
Ascension of Mary Magdalene, Jan Polack, 15th C

Maybe it’s to mimic an animal’s udders. Which seems rather pagan and again bringing women closer to nature and thus wild and untrustworthy. But she’s supposed to be repentant of her wicked ways, at least, that’s the reasoning behind St. Mary of Egypt’s pelt, where Mary Magdelene’s stems from.

Other times Mary’s pelt disappears and her “covering” is only from the hair on her head. It’s wrapped around her barely covering her modesty. Everyone is really worried about modesty apparently, and not enough to make sense of it.

Mary Magdalen hair
Penitent Mary Magdalen, Titian, 1530 – 5

It’s like she managed to cover everything but her breasts. Obviously an homage to earlier renditions, but c’mon Titian. Obviously, this is a more eroticized Mary Magdalene.

(Read more about that hand gesture.)

The pelt she was initially given by artists was stolen from a saint that repented prostitution. Then the pelt shows her breasts off, then it disappears altogether into a mass of beautiful blonde hair. (Which must be heavy, forget looking up to the heavens, that’s probably why she’s always looking up.)

It is a bit frustrating that her story has been manipulated and twisted, much like the hair on her body. Unfortunately, whatever shape she’s into, there’ll be more questions and changes to come. That’s the nature of hair, what’s acceptable is always reworked.

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