The account of the sinful woman who anointed Christ’s feet is found in St Luke’s gospel. It underlines Christ’s welcoming attitude towards sinners and his criticism of the self-righteous.
Pope Benedict XVI shared this reflection on the story: “Simon, a Pharisee and a rich dignitary of the town, was holding a banquet at his home in honour of Jesus. In accordance with a custom of that time, the meal was eaten with the doors left open, for in this way the fame and prestige of the homeowner was increased. All at once, an uninvited and unexpected guest entered from the back of the room: a well-known prostitute. One can understand the embarrassment of those present, which did not seem, however, to bother the woman.”
He went on: “She came forward and somewhat furtively stopped at Jesus’ feet. She had heard his words of pardon and hope for all, even prostitutes; she was moved and stayed where she was in silence. She bathed Jesus’ feet with tears, wiped them dry with her hair, kissed them and anointed them with fragrant ointment. By so doing, the sinner woman wanted to express her love for and gratitude to the Lord with gestures that were familiar to her, although they were censured by society.”
The pope then explained: “Amid the general embarrassment, it was Jesus himself who saved the situation: “Simon, I have something to say to you”. “What is it, Teacher?”, the master of the house asked him. We all know Jesus’ answer with a parable which we can sum up in the following words which the Lord addressed basically to Simon: “You see? This woman knows she is a sinner; yet prompted by love, she is asking for understanding and forgiveness. You, on the other hand, presume yourself to be righteous and are perhaps convinced that you have nothing serious for which to be forgiven.”
Particularly in the past, some scholars thought that the sinful woman who anointed Christ was none other than St Mary Magdalene. This was due to the story’s similarity to an episode mentioned in St John’s gospel, where Mary, the sister of Martha, anoints Christ’s feet (John 11:1-2; 12:1-8). Since this Mary was also believed to be Mary Magdalene, to many it seemed sensible to interpret the story this way.
Nowadays, however, scholars are less convinced that Mary Magdalene really was Mary, the sister of Martha, or that she was the unnamed woman in this story. St Luke did not directly identify the woman in question and as a result, scholars are divided on the issue.
Nevertheless, the traditional view that the sinful woman was St Mary Magdalene has been reflected in Christian art over the centuries. Due to this, the jar of ointment mentioned in the story became a common symbol for the saint. She also became a role model for repentant sinners, both in preaching and in art.
This colourful stained glass scene of the episode reflects the traditional view of the story. It’s found in the former baptistery of St Mary Magdalene’s church, in Bexhill-on-Sea. Although it does not specify that the woman is Mary Magdalene, its presence in a church named after her and in a baptistery (where sins were forgiven) gives the game away. The window dates to 1900 and is by the German firm, Mayer of Munich.
The sinful woman with flowing hair is pictured at Christ’s feet, alongside her jar of ointment. She sheds a tear as Christ blesses her act of repentance. Simon the Pharisee sits opposite Christ, looking concerned and flanked by other guests to his left and right. The ‘picturesque’, ornate design of the window very much reflects Mayer’s ‘house style’ – a style that they reproduced globally during this period.
See the full image:
Mayer of Munich / St Mary Magdalene washes Christ’s feet / Stained glass / 1900
Where to find this work of art
St Mary Magdalene, Bexhill-on-Sea
Read the relevant passage