In popular culture, Mary Magdalene has often been portrayed as a former prostitute—a fallen woman who only found redemption when she became a close disciple of Jesus Christ.
Naturally, this piqued the interest of Vancouver artist Lilian Broca, who has been researching the lives of courageous female biblical figures for the past 30 years.
In 2000, she created images for a book project with Joy Kogawa, entitled A Song of Lilith. Broca went on to create large-scale mosaic art projects around two other women in the Old Testament, Esther and Judith.
Now her third elaborate mosaic project on a major biblical figure, Mary Magdalene, is on display at the Italian Cultural Centre.
“Unlike my former heroines yet equally courageous, loyal and determined, Mary Magdalene survived not only fierce enemies wishing her harm, once Jesus died on the cross, but also the ensuing 2,000 years of denigration, defamation, and vilification,” Broca declared in a statement.
Mary Magdalene was one of two women named Mary who were extremely close to Jesus, the other being his mother.
Whereas Jesus's mother is often seen as the clean and pure Virgin Mary, the other Mary has been treated much more callously through the ages.
In doing her research, Broca scoured through the legends in manuscripts in several countries before resurrecting Mary Magdalene in a new, more positive light—a veritable powerhouse who was Jesus's greatest companion.
Each of the two-metre mosaics of Mary Magdalene at the Italian Cultural Centre includes handwritten and illustrated scripture manuscripts using seven ancient languages spoken in the ancient world during her lifetime. These mosaics were created from luminous Venetian smalto glass, which is opaque.
“Through the manipulation of that light in my narrative series, I am able to create works that possess both intellectual content and a dynamic, living quality,” Broca stated.
It's a painstaking process placing the coloured pieces of glass together to create each work of art.
She described Il Museo at the Italian Cultural Centre as a great venue, noting that its director and curator, Angela Clarke, presented her Judith series of mosaics there in 2015.
"Angela has been excellent in designing environments that enhance the art on the walls or on plinths; and not just my art, every single body of work is carefully examined and given the best attention to its aesthetic needs," Broca noted.
As an example, she stated that her Mary Magdalene mosaics contain a significant amount of gold and they're placed on black walls. "Combined with proper lighting focused on the mosaics only, the atmosphere gives the visitors the impression of a church or monastery."
Born in Romania and raised in Montreal, Broca was a painter for many years. She saw her first mosaic—a work of art on the floor in an archaeological dig—at the age of 12. She was mesmerized at the time, but she only began creating mosaic art in 2002 with her Esther series.
“I noticed that for the last two millennia, mosaics have been the favourite medium for celebrating masculine achievements in politics, in the military, and in commerce,” she stated. “Usually these mosaics were created in monumental sizes and we still see examples today, like Alexander the Great’s military campaign mosaic found in Pompeii.
“Conversely, when it came to women, this was not the case, the female iconography being that of deities and mythological female figures,” she continued. “It is for this reason that I chose the mosaic medium and the monumental sizes to represent my heroines, my protagonists.”
She hopes that by depicting great female figures, such as Mary Magdalene, in this ancient and monumental art form, they will be accorded the same level of dignity and respect as their male counterparts.
“Throughout history, the way ancient women’s stories have been recorded and imparted have greatly affected the way women have been perceived and valued in cultural and social climates of later generations,” Broca explained.
“My intent was and still is, to restore through my art, the high social status and feminine power she possessed during her life with Jesus by her side," she added. "I hope that this series offers new ways to perceive the hugely influential relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene as well as reassess what happened to that relationship as written by the male founders of Christianity.
"Also, I am hoping my mosaics and drawings will offer strong reasons to motivate viewers to re-examine this critical episode in human history.”