In late 2010 I came across a collection of Mary Magdalene paintings online by an artist named Tanya Torres. They were bright and colorful, and reminded me of vibrant pictures I’d seen in folk art galleries. I emailed Tanya right away to request permission to feature her art in a Magdalene.org gallery, and ask whether she would be interested in doing an interview. To my delight she agreed, and we set about conducting an interview by email to feature on the site. Life has a little habit of, well, happening. A fire in my building set everything on hold, the interview was never formatted or put online, and Magdalene.org went into a state of suspended animation. Revisiting Tanya’s interview was high on my to-do list when I thawed the site last month, and she graciously agreed to do some revisions and updates. Because the interview that follows is quite long, I’ve decided to break it into a few posts, with plenty of examples of Tanya’s work. Enjoy!
Magdalene.org: Can you please talk a bit about how your interest in Mary Magdalene, and in *painting* Mary Magdalene got started? What was the spark that lit the fire?
Tanya: In 2004, I was on vacation in Puerto Rico. My father had given me the book The Da Vinci Code. It was an entertaining book, but what really caught my attention was what the author was saying about Mary Magdalene. I wanted to find out what that was all about. I figured that authors get their ideas somewhere, and that he must have done some research on the subject. A few days later, I went to a bookstore, and right next to The Da Vinci Code was Margaret Starbird’s book The Woman With the Alabaster Jar. Since I was still on vacation, I bought it and devoured it in a few days. Margaret Starbird discusses a lot of iconographical references and ways in which artists referred to Mary Magdalene in their work, and I felt I too wanted to paint Mary Magdalene. I had been painting women with babies, so painting Mary Magdalene with a child, as the Holy Grail both authors talk about in their books, was a natural transition for me. After that, because I found a color palette I really loved, and because I became obsessed with reading everything I could about Mary Magdalene, I continued painting images of her, inspired by the different aspects of her mythology and devotion that I was able to encounter through many readings. Because I was not religious at all, I was quite neutral in my feelings about the topic. But little by little, painting her image became a personal devotion, and a source of spiritual inspiration.
Magdalene.org: Do you consider your series of Mary Magdalene paintings a “project,” or is it more of an impulse that will be on-going for an indefinite period of time? In other words, will we be seeing many more Mary Magdalene paintings by Tanya Torres?
Tanya: I have been painting Mary Magdalenes for almost 9 years now. I feel that this is something I will be doing for the rest of my life. Although my exhibition Song of the Magdalene was presented as part of a larger project in 2010, painting Mary Magdalene represents much more than a temporary task for me. When I paint Mary Magdalene I feel connected to the aspect of divinity that I feel she represents. Mary Magdalene helps me connect to the world of Spirit, as well as helps me communicate with the “real” world. It has been interesting to see how people who are agnostics or even atheists respond with enthusiasm to the Magdalene. It is as if, through her image, many people like myself are able to connect to spiritual ideas without feeling we are giving up on our ideals. Perhaps it is because for so many years she was thought to be a sinner, that all of us feel she is not going to judge us! In this way, painting Mary Magdalene is liberating. She is the one saint to whom people are willing to open their hearts without fear.
Magdalene.org: One of the things that I find so stunning about your Mary Magdalene paintings is that there are common themes in all of them. For example, her red robes, the golden light behind her, the dove. You’ve addressed this on your blog, but can you talk a little bit more about the core elements of a Mary Magdalene painting versus the unique elements that define them?
Tanya: All the paintings contain both references to traditional and personal iconography, and the fusion of both. There are several elements that I always use to create a Mary Magdalene. I usually paint her wearing a red robe or veil, for which I use all the reds I have. There are layers of different reds and combinations of shades and tints of red in each of the paintings. Red is one of the traditional iconographical references I use in my Magdalenes. She also has her red hair, often showing a curl coming out of the veil, a traditional allusion to her being a prostitute that I use mostly because I like painting hair and curls, and also to indicate that she is the Magdalene. Behind her is a halo, always in pure and bright yellows blending all the way too white. I usually don’t like to use gold like the traditional halos, but prefer yellow. I see this yellow disk as the sun in our reality and as the light of God in spiritual reality. She exists between the two, able to come through when we call upon her. I often place a dove, representing the Holy Spirit. This is how traditional iconographers represent the Holy Spirit, but to me, it is more about communion with nature and the holiness and interconnection of all life. I am always fascinated by stories of ancient and modern saints being able to communicate with animals. Both the Holy Spirit and Mary Magdalene are connected to the idea of Sophia, or Holy Wisdom. Margaret Starbird provides an interesting explanation about the use of gematria and the name of the Magdalene, and how it connects her to Sophia and explains Mary Magdalene’s high status in the early Church. In my mind, the Holy Spirit is very much a part of Mary Magdalene, in a way she is the Holy Spirit. She is the one who guides me in that way that the Holy Spirit guides people.
When I started painting Mary Magdalenes, I used the things I learned from Margaret Starbird’s books and from conversations with a friend who is a Gnostic, as well as many books and articles. But I also combined these ideas with my own previous work. The first Magdalene I painted is a nursing mother, like the images in my other paintings. The second is more about the face, about creating an iconic image that speaks to that which unites us all as human beings, a theme I had touched on before by painting The Four Daughters of Eve.
The third Magdalene is about communion with nature. Mary Magdalene is surrounded by flowers and empty branches, life and death. After that, I began to refer to the things that people traditionally associate with Mary Magdalene: Jesus Christ casting seven demons out of her, the alabaster jar, flowers (because she is the saint of gardeners and perfumers), the Holy Spirit (although this reference had already appeared before). Then I started expressing the ideas that Mary Magdalene had evoked in me: a desire for wisdom, the idea of creating peace through art-making, the desire to heal my perception of reality. These ideas have become very important to me because I feel that this is what the Magdalene has been teaching me ever since I started painting her.
Please subscribe or check back soon for part 2 of this long-overdue interview with artist Tanya Torres!