Who was this woman? The instant answere is that July the 22th the Roman Catholic Church commemorates Saint Mary of Magdala, the first person to whom Jesus Christ was revealed after his resurrection, in order to announce the event to the world. The name Magdalene comes from Magdala, her native land.
The reputation of prostitute dates back to 591, when Pope Gregory the Magnus in a sermon equated her to the adultress (John 8,1-11) and likely messed up with Mary of Bethany, Lazarus' sister, called "the sinner" in the Gospel of Luke. Mary Magdalene was there during the Crucifixion with Mary of Bethany and Mary mother of Christ.
It was a mistake committed misundestanding the Scriptures and the historical characters, probably with a bit of misogyny and reserve about the role of this woman in the Jesus life: Mary Magdalene washed and spread balms on his corpse, a kind of habit just allowed to a wife or another man. Apocryphal Gospels call her "the great apostle". The success of the novel "The Da Vinci Code", by Dan Brown, has furthermore attracted attention on this person but without reliable evidences and solidity.
Mary Magdalene is often depicted on the foot of the cross, supporting the Madonna or embracing the wooden pole, as in the fresco cycle of the Passion, painted by Girolamo Romanino (1534) in the church of Santa Maria della Neve, Pisogne (Brescia). The brixian mannerist painter Luca Mombello made a portrait of Mary with long blond hair, naked and surrounded by angels: the painting is on exhibition in the CaMus Museum in Breno (BS).
There are also rumours about the statue of the Magdalene carved by Beniamino Simoni (18th c.), part of the Cerveno Via Crucis deposition chapel, wich maybe represents his mistress: that impudent act gave rise to the wrath of the parson, Bartolomeo Bressanelli, and it was perhaps the reason why the artist went away, leaving unfinished the work, then completed by the Fantoni brothers.
Passion, temptation, repentance: all this injured the name of Mary Magdalene but at the same time she remains one of the most loved subjects in the art history. She's usually depicted bareheaded, with long hair, sometimes near to a skull or balm cruets and the crucifix, elements that talks subtle about a woman who hadn't any fault except being just like this.