Every December for the last four years, the International House has staged Magdalena, a photo exhibit inspired by the biblical figure Mary Magdalene. Her role as the most controversial biblical saint underscored her stature as an icon of female mysticism, while the mystery surrounding her life afforded artists much poetic license in their depictions. The approach taken by Canadian photographer Stephen Thorne in this year's exhibit — somewhere between National Geographic and an oddly anthropological Vogue fashion shoot — seems restrained compared to previous Magdalena shows. Focusing on the varieties of female charisma, his images range from the lush Sub-Saharan beauty of Muna, Ethiopia/Egypt, 2012, (pictured) to the gravitas of an Afghan War Widow, Age 33, IDP Camp, 2003, whose gaunt, chiseled features evoke stoic dignity in the face of unspeakable tragedy. It was, in fact, Thorne's own PTSD from his work as a photojournalist that led him to explore the resilience of feminine charisma in war-torn corners of the world, in views of irrepressible children, svelte young women and aging matriarchs that unexpectedly give us Magdalena as an icon of the eternal mysteries of human existence.
Revered by the Gnostic Christians as a saint who could induce direct experience of the divine, Mary Magdalene's legacy suffered from the medieval Inquisition's witch hunts, and from church protocols banning female priests. In New Orleans, Christians such as Marie Laveau became priestesses of the Afro-Caribbean branch of the faith known as Voodoo. Mary Lou Uttermohlen's photos of La Source Ancienne Ounfo, a contemporary New Orleans Voodoo society led by Sallie Ann Glassman, are eloquent documentary views of its ritual invocations of the ancestors, including a pantheon of Voodoo spirits that are closely associated with and symbolized by traditional Christian saints. Here images including St. John's Eve, among other images of Voodoo ceremonies, altars and regalia, remind us that Magdalena's long-repressed but resilient legacy of feminine mysticism remains multifaceted and timeless.