I saw “The Little Mermaid” (1989) several years after it came out and after I had read Margaret Starbird’s 1993 book The Woman With the Alabaster Jar about Mary Magdalen. Having focused on Mary Magdalen, who would receive a greater public interest after The Da Vinci Code appeared ten years later, I recognized a famous painting of the Magdalen in Ariel’s grotto of treasures and wondered how it came to be there.
Called “The Penitent Magdalene,” (or “Magdalen with the Smoking Flame”) the painting is one of several with that name by French artist Georges de La Tour done in 1640. In the Disney film, Ariel is shown looking at the painting, most especially the candle, as she tries to figure out the nature of fire–not something she would know about under the sea. Was Disney, for reasons unknown, comparing the red-haired Ariel with the red-haired Mary Magdalen?
Not really, at least not intentionally (that we know of). Writing in his blog on uCatholic in 2019, Billy Ryan says that animator Glen Keane “picked out that painting because he wanted a picture, an image, of a fire underwater to go with the lyric.” (Click on the word “blog” above to see a still and a video clip of Ariel looking at the painting.)
Regardless of what Disney and/or Keane intended, Starbird–whose focus is the sacred feminine–saw a deeper meaning in the painting in the film in her 1999 article: “Of all the possible pictures available from art galleries around the world, it is incredibly significant that the directors of the Disney® film chose to place Mary Magdalene at the bottom of the sea, for it is SHE who represents the lost Bride and the archetype of the ‘Sacred Feminine’ as partner in Christian mythology.” (Click on the word “article” to read the entire article.)
Perhaps Keane, who was Catholic, was aware of the painting because of his faith. It would surprise me if, in 1989, he was consciously thinking of the sacred feminine for that terminology and line of thought hadn’t come into the national consciousness (other than scholars) yet.
We may never know whether the painting was a convenient prop or whether it was intentionally used to make a larger point. Starbird thinks the painting’s use was more than coincidental, however it got there. I hope she’s right.