Archived from The Magdalene Review on Sunday 18 December 2005:

I spent much of last night sorting through crucifixion, deposition, and entombment images at the Web Gallery of Art. A number of weeks ago I came across a reference in Walter Lowrie’s book, Art in the Early Church to a figure called an orant. This is a figure, usually female, who stands in a very specific attitude of prayer in Christian art; her arms out to her sides, slightly bent, her hands held with palms forward.

A rare example of a male orant
A rare example of a male orant

It occurred to me that Mary Magdalene occasionally appears in a similar stance in some Passion images, so I thought I’d check it out. I came up with a long list of images in which Mary Magdalene, or one of the other Marys, is in the classical orant stance or in some other attitude of prayer. Incidentally, my memory was poor; in fact, most of the images on my list feature someone other than Mary Magdalene in the pose in question.

Mary Magdalene as orant in deposition scene
Compare the Mary Magdalene in the back to orant image above…

Rogier van der Weyden created some of the most interesting pieces on my list; his work shows an evolution toward a rather peculiar prayer stance in crucifixion, deposition and entombment scenes. In one of his works, John is shown in a variation of this position, the only example (out of those I looked at) of a male in such a posture in one of the three scenes I noted.

Mary Magdalene in prayer stance by Rogier van der Weyden
Mary Magdalene in a peculiar prayer stance used by van der Weyden

Alternate prayer stances aside, the classical orant pose is usually assumed to be a gesture of extreme grief in images of the crucifixion, deposition and entombment. In some cases, this is unmistakable because of a mournful grimace or other facial contortion that gives the viewer an indication of profound emotional distress. However, given the frequency of other kinds of clearly prayerful poses by the same figures, it seems reasonable to wonder if, when the “arms up” gesture appears on a Mary who looks otherwise calm, the stance is intended to convey an attitude of prayer.

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