In my first article about the curious painted history of myrrh, I concentrated on accounts of the classical myth in which the incestuous Myrrha was transformed into a myrrh tree before giving birth to Adonis.
In later classical times, Myrrah started to recover her reputation, and is one of a group of women identified as heroines. She appears in one of the more mysterious paintings in the Vatican Museums, in a series of full-length portraits in a fresco which was found in a classical Roman villa at Tor Marancia – now famous for its much more contemporary wall-paintings. Their artist has kindly identified the women depicted as Pasiphae, Scylla, Myrrha, Phaedra, and Canace. Although these differ from the women featured in Ovid’s Heroides, the series shares the idea of gathering together women with singular stories to tell.
For a long time, these frescoes were on display in the same room containing the slightly better-known Aldobrandini Wedding, a superb and equally puzzling frieze from a house on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. I regret that I have been unable to locate a suitable image of Myrrha from that fresco.
The greatest change in association occurred not with the mythical origin of the myrrh tree, but in the role of the resin, which was one of the three precious presents given by the eastern monarchs who appeared from nowhere to welcome the nativity of Jesus Christ.
There are many hundreds of well-known paintings of The Adoration of the Magi, of which a few show the gifts most clearly. Two of those were painted by Hieronymus Bosch before 1500.
In the earlier of these, now in the Met in New York, the Magi are shown in front of Mary and Jesus, in the lower right of the panel. The first to pay homage kneels to present a golden ewer and basin. He has removed his hat, which incorporates a gold coronet. Deeper into the view are his colleagues: the nearer, apparently from Africa, bearing a spherical ciborium of frankincense which is decorated with a phoenix, and the third holding his Gothic ciborium containing myrrh.
In the foreground of Bosch’s later painting, now in the Prado, is what appears to be a fairly conventional and detailed depiction of the adoration of the Magi. The Virgin Mary is sat under the tumbledown eaves beside a small cattleshed or stable known in the artist’s home town as hoekboerderij. The infant Christ is seated on her lap, steadied by her left hand.
The senior of the Magi, an elderly man, has removed his crown, which is to the right on the ground, and prays to the mother and child on his knees. His gift is an elaborate gold table decoration showing Abraham about to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Behind him a second has also removed his headgear and holds his gift of myrrh on a silver platter. To the left is the third, a bare-headed African king wearing immaculate white robes, and bearing his gift of frankincense inside a sphere, on top of which is a phoenix bird; he has a child attendant behind him.
More unusually, they are joined by a fourth king, an anti-Christ, who wears an ornate crown, and clutches a helmet with his left hand. His appearance is bizarre because his face and neck are sunburnt, but the rest of his skin is deathly pale. He is partly undressed, and has an old wound on his right lower leg. Several other figures are seen behind this fourth king, and an ass is visible through an opening in the wall of the shed.
Gerard David’s more conventional Adoration of the Magi from about 1515 is another clear depiction of the three kings bearing their gifts.
Velázquez is thought to have been commissioned to paint this Adoration of the Magi in 1619 for a chapel in the Jesuit Novitiate of San Luis in Seville, which is one of his few dated works. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he painted most of his figures from live models, and this gives them the impression of reality here. Coupled with the Tenebrist lighting, this must have appeared quite radical at the time.
Skipping ahead another 250 years and countless other paintings, we come to this exquisite tapestry designed in 1888 by Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and the less well-known John Henry Dearle. This version was woven in 1894 for the Corporation of Manchester, and is one of ten known examples. The composition was taken from Burne-Jones’ watercolour from 1887 which was photographically enlarged into cartoons, then coloured and decorated with flowers by Morris and Dearle.
The other major involvement of myrrh in the writings of the New Testament is with a woman who has subsequently been identified (not uncontroversially) as Mary Magdalene. In western European traditions, apocryphal writings have portrayed her has having a colourful past, probably as a prostitute, who repented and developed a close relationship with Christ. She appears to have been conflated with an unidentified woman who anointed Christ’s feet with myrrh taken from an alabaster box.
Other accounts have claimed that she returned to Christ’s tomb after the crucifixion in order to start embalming his body with myrrh, only to find its boulder door open. Arguments about these have raged for well over a millenium, but whatever their evidential basis, Mary Magdalene became associated with a container of myrrh in a great many paintings.
Piero della Francesca’s full figure portrait of Mary Magdalene (1460) in Arezzo Cathedral shows her holding a container of myrrh in her left hand.
In Fra Bartolomeo’s God the Father with Saints Catherine of Siena and Mary Magdalen from 1509, Mary is shown at the left, holding her container of myrrh, as the myrrhbearer. Saint Catherine wears her Dominican tertiaries’ habit, and in front of her are a white lily, book, and a sprig from the crown of thorns.
God the Father is shown bearing the Greek capitals alpha and omega, and the winged cherubs hold open a scroll with the words divinus amor extasim facit, a quotation from Dionysius the Areopagite meaning divine love produces ecstasy, a reference to the ‘mystical marriage’ of Catherine, and Bartolomeo’s own mystical beliefs.
Bartolomeo’s later Incarnation with Six Saints (1515) shows the Virgin Mary enthroned and surrounded by six saints, two of whom are women. The most clearly-identifiable of the saints is Mary Madgalene, kneeling at the right and holding her container of myrrh. The saint immediately to the left of the Virgin Mary is John the Baptist, and the others are likely to include Jerome and possibly Saint Francis of Assisi. Above Mary is the Holy Spirit, in the form of a white dove, and at the upper part of the left pillar is the angel Gabriel, bearing the white lily of the Annunciation.
Perhaps the most detailed account of Mary as Myrrhbearer is Mary Magdalene from about 1524, in the manner of Leonardo da Vinci and attributed to Andrea Solari. She is here transferring myrrh from a maiolica pharmacy jar to a smaller vessel, as if preparing to take it to embalm the body of Christ. This cannot, of course, be pure myrrh resin which is a solid, but a tincture in alcohol.
Another popular theme has been that of the Penitent Mary Magdalene, seen here in one of Murillo’s earliest surviving paintings, completed in 1640 when he was about twenty-two. In this first of his many paintings of her, she is shown as a ‘scarlet woman’ in penitence, accompanied by a large Bible, a skull, and – more unusually – with a jar of myrrh.
The eastern tradition for Mary Magdalene has been quite different from that of the Catholic Church, teaching that she was virtuous and had no dark past. Instead, she is honoured as an equal to the Apostles, as Myrrhbearer, and is shown holding a container of myrrh in countless icons.
One more modern example of those is Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov’s striking Mary Magdalene from 1899. Maybe the trees in its background are intended to be myrrh-producing too.
Myrrh has undergone quite a transformation of its own, from the sap of a tree formed from the incestuous mother of Adonis, through a Christmas gift and the foundation of the commercial ‘feast’, to the embalming fluid held by one of Jesus Christ’s closest friends.