Mary Magdalene (fl. early 1st c. CE)
Mary Magdalene (fl. early 1st c. ce)
Disciple of Jesus, ranked with the apostles because of her role at the resurrection, who, for much of Western history, has been thought to be a repentant prostitute . Name variations: Mariam; Mariamne or Mariamme, Mariham; Maria or Maryam; Maria Magdalene; the Magdalene; the Magdalen; Mary of Magdala or Magdalo.
Based on the four Gospels of the New Testament, Mary Magdalene was born in the late 1st century bce in Magdala on the lake of Galilee. After being cured of "seven devils" by Jesus, she became a disciple, was with Jesus at the crucifixion, and came to anoint his dead body on Easter morning. Mary Magdalene was the first to discover the empty tomb and to see the risen Christ. Because she announced the resurrection to the other disciples, she is called "apostle to the apostles." By the 6th century, in the West the Magdalene was conflated with Mary of Bethany and with the repentant sinner in Luke 7 (assumed to be a prostitute), who, on encountering and anointing Jesus, reformed and devoted herself to his ministry. She is a Christian model of penitence and the contemplative life. According to legend, she ended her days as a solitary hermit in France about 50 ce. Mary Magdalene is symbolized by a scarlet cloak, loose red or golden hair, an ointment jar ( alabastron ), or a book.
Mary Magdalene is an enigma. Not only have multiple and conflicting mythologies about her life after the crucifixion flourished, but it is not completely clear from the Bible who this woman was. The foundational texts for the life of Mary are the New Testament and the apocryphal gospels, written in the first few centuries after Jesus' death. However, from the 1st century, the identity of Mary was controversial. The references to the Magdalene in the Bible are scanty and confusing. There are perhaps seven different Marys mentioned in the Gospels, and at one point or another in Christian history most of those seven have been thought to be Mary Magdalene. Only recently has consensus been reached on which passages refer to the woman who has come to be known as the repentant sinner.
It is in the story of the passion and resurrection of Jesus that all but one of the explicit references to Mary Magdalene (in some versions of the Bible called Mary of Magdala), by name, occur (Mt. 27:55–28:11; Mk 15:40–16:11; Lk 23:49–24:11; Jn 19:25–20:18). She was among the women watching from afar as Jesus was nailed to the cross. This group "had followed Jesus from Galilee and waited on him." Mary Magdalene sat at the tomb after Joseph of Arimathaea laid Jesus' broken body into it, and on the third day after burial she and others returned to the grave. Matthew claims the Magdalene and "the other Mary" were there to look at the tomb (28.1), but the other Evangelists specify that Mary Magdalene came to carry out the traditional Jewish burial custom of anointing with oil the body of the recently deceased. John's Gospel differs slightly from the other three in that he places Mary Magdalene with Mary the Virgin at the foot of the cross and has her coming alone to anoint Christ on the Sunday of the resurrection. On that Easter morning, a violent quake shook the earth, and angels, which Matthew says descended from heaven, spoke to the women, announcing that Jesus had risen and that they should announce the good news to his disciples. Matthew says the women, overjoyed, hurried to accomplish their mission, urged on by the resurrected Christ who appeared to them in the way, bidding "Be not afraid" (Mt 28:2–10). According to Luke, the women fulfilled their task, but the disciples did not believe their miraculous story. In Mark, the women were terrified and spoke to no one, and it was only after Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene that she alone among the women carried the joyous news to the mourning disciples who did not believe her (Mk 16:1–11). In John's Gospel, as Mary Magdalene wept at the empty tomb, her savior spoke to her, asking, "Why are you weeping?" She, thinking Jesus was the gardener, replied, "They have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have laid him." However, at that point she turned and, recognizing Jesus, cried out, "'Rabbuni!' (which is Hebrew for 'My Master')." The ecstatic Mary Magdalene moved to embrace her Lord, at which he uttered the famous phrase, " Noli me tangere " (do not touch me) because he was at that point in a transformed state and not to be worshipped in the flesh (Jn 20:10–17). In Mark 16:9, where Mary Magdalene meets the risen Christ, we get the first (because Mark's was the first Gospel written) indication that Mary Magdalene was a repentant sinner, in a passage that some scholars believe to be a 2nd-century addition to the text. He describes her as the woman "from whom [Jesus] had formerly cast out seven devils." Luke, who undoubtedly knew Mark's Gospel, incorporates in his text the motif of the Magdalene's seven devils. He attests that the Mary "from whom seven devils had come out" traveled with Jesus and his chosen 12 apostles from village to village "proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God" (Lk 8:1–2).
In addition to these references which name Mary Magdalene specifically, there are six other passages which, over the centuries, various exegetes have claimed allude to her. She has been identified as the unnamed woman who entered the house in Bethany of Simon the Leper in which Jesus was dining and liberally anointed Jesus' head with her costly oil of nard (Mt 26:6–13; Mk 14:3–9). The disciples were indignant that money which could have been given to the poor had been spent on this extravagance. Jesus calmed his followers by instructing them that the action foreshadows his anointing for burial, and went on to say that "what she has done will be told as her memorial" (Mk 14:8–9). It is understandable why later thinkers conflated this unnamed woman of Bethany with Mary Magdalene whom the Gospel texts say went to Jesus' tomb to anoint the dead body of her Lord, for that story of Mary Magdalene's attempt to anoint him did indeed become her "memorial." The act of anointing also connects Mary Magdalene to another nameless woman of a town called Nain. Jesus was dining with one of the Pharisees when a woman "who was living an immoral life" entered with a flask of oil of myrrh. She fell to Jesus' feet, "wetted them with her tears and wiped them with her hair, kissing them and anointing them with the myrrh" at which Jesus said, "Your faith has saved you, go in peace" (Lk 7:36–50). This is a critical passage to the legend of Mary Magdalene as it evolved in later centuries; the sin of this "immoral" woman was assumed to be prostitution, partially based on the fact that her hair was loose, not bound and concealed beneath a cloth as was proper for respectable women.
Martha and Mary of Bethany (fl. early 1st c. ce)
Biblical women of the New Testament . Name variations: Sisters of Bethany; some think Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are one and the same. Flourished in the early 1st century ce; sisters of Lazarus.
The sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary of Bethany were also followers of Jesus, and he frequently used their home in Bethany as a retreat. Little is known about the sisters except that they were quite different in temperament. Martha, presumably the eldest, was constantly busying herself with the details of keeping an ordered home. Mary was more contemplative and spiritual. When Jesus visited, Martha endeavored to feed him and make him comfortable, while Mary sat at his feet and opened her heart to his teachings. Jesus frequently reminded Martha that she must not allow her daily chores to interfere with her inner spirituality. Once when Martha complained that Mary was not helping her, Jesus gently rebuked her. "You are worried and troubled about many things," he said. "But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her."
It is said in the Gospel of John (Jn 11–12) that when Lazarus died, the sisters went into a deep grief. When Jesus arrived following Lazarus' death, they admonished him for not coming sooner. "Lord, if You had been here my brother would not have died," Mary cried. Jesus was impatient at their disbelief, but he also wept. He then brought the four-day-dead Lazarus back to life, after which Mary expressed her gratitude by anointing Jesus' feet, using "a pound of very costly oil of spikenard," and wiping them with her hair. A variant of this story, concerning an unnamed woman who anoints Jesus' head at Simon the Leper's house, is told in Mt 26:6–13 and in Mk 14:3–9. Mary of Bethany was for centuries identified by Western church fathers as being Mary Magdalene, which has caused much confusion for scholars.
A third incident involving a Mary, which has also been attributed to Mary Magdalene, occurred in Bethany where "a woman named Martha made [Jesus] welcome in her home. As Martha of Bethany was busy preparing the meal, her sister Mary of Bethany sat at their guest's feet listening attentively to his words. When Martha reproached her sister, Jesus assured Martha that Mary had "chosen the better way." In other words, while Martha was busy with worldly things, Mary was attending to things of the spirit (Lk 10:38–42). In addition, Martha and Mary of Bethany were the sisters of Lazarus whom Jesus resurrected, and the story of Lazarus in the Gospel of John (Jn 11–12) includes a version of the aforementioned story from Matthew and Mark. In this version, Mary of Bethany, in gratitude for the resurrection of her brother, anoints Jesus' feet with ointment and wipes them with her hair, which has reinforced Mary of Bethany's identification with Mary Magdalene. In the Middle Ages, the Mary of Bethany (presumed to be that repentant exprostitute Mary Magdalene) who sat at the feet of Jesus was held up as a model of the contemplative or monastic life.
Some medieval thinkers grafted the story of the Samaritan woman onto the life of Mary Magdalene. While Christ and his followers were traveling in Judea, they met a Samaritan woman at the well, and Jesus correctly intuited that she was living in sin with a man who was not her husband. The Samaritan woman, amazed by this clairvoyance, converted and brought many of her townspeople over to Christ and thus became the first apostle to the gentiles. Presumably, the factor that for the medieval thinkers linked this incident with the Magdalene was the renunciation of sinful sexuality, which more and more became the hallmark of Mary Magdalene's persona (Jn 4:8–30). Finally, Mary Magdalene has been assumed by some writers to have been the woman whom the Pharisees caught in the act of adultery and whom Jesus saved from death by stoning when he suggested, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (Jn 8:3–11). The woman in these verses is not called Mary, nor does she share attributes with the woman from Magdala who first witnessed the risen Christ.
The absorption of all of the above six passages into the persona of the Mary Magdalene who followed and administered to Christ hinges on Mark's statement, repeated by Luke, that Christ cast seven devils from her. It was mere assumption that those unspecified devils were demons of lust, a deduction facilitated by the association in the classical world of the feminine and the corporeal. Also, Mary Magdalene is designated in the Gospels by her place of origin, Magdala, and not associated with a husband, father, or any other male. She was an independent female and therefore her respectability was suspect. Further, Magdala had a notorious reputation in the 1st century for the licentious behavior of its inhabitants. The Jews used the word "magdala" to denote a person with plaited hair, which was in use among prostitutes of the time. However, whether validated by the Biblical texts or not, as Christianity spread, with it spread a fluid mythology of Mary Magdalene, the penitent fallen woman who was beloved of Christ.
Discussions about which of the Biblical passages refer to Mary Magdalene date to the earliest centuries of Christianity. The fathers of the early Greek church (c. 300–400) generally distinguished Mary Magdalene, the sinner from Nain of Luke 7, and Mary of Bethany (the sister of Martha and Lazarus) as three separate people, but in the Western tradition the three have been treated as one person, based largely on a determination made by Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604). The unnamed sinner in Luke 7:37, who washed Jesus' feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, came to be viewed as the same woman who anointed his head just before the passion and who first saw the risen Christ. This composite Mary's feast day is celebrated on July 22. Although in the Western church Gregory the Great's position held firm, intellectuals in both the East and the West continued to struggle with the identity of Mary and to further interpret the Scriptures. At one point, Cyril of Jerusalem (d.386) identified Mary of Cleophas , the sister of Mary the Virgin, as the Magdalene, and in a later treatise he held that Mary the Virgin herself was one and the same as Mary Magdalene (whom he claimed was virgin and aged at the time of Christ's death). This appears to be a confusion of the three women who stood at the foot of the cross when Jesus was killed. The Western church father Ambrose (d. 397) suggested that there may have been several Mary Magdalenes, citing the discrepancies in Scripture: according to John 20:15, Mary did not recognize Jesus, whereas in Matthew 28:9, she did.
In the same time period that the four orthodox Gospels of the New Testament were written, other gospels appeared which, although never sanctioned by inclusion in the Bible as we know it, carried authority and wide currency in the late antique world. The apocryphal Infancy of Jesus Christ claims that the alabaster box in which Mary Magdalene kept her ointment was the same box in which Jesus' foreskin had been preserved since his circumcision. Another apocryphal text, The Gospel of Nicodemus, formulates a narrative in which Mary Magdalene travels to Rome after Jesus' death to publicly accuse Pontius Pilate before Tiberius, the Roman emperor. Two of the most significant of the apocryphal texts for the life of Mary Magdalene, both of which were discovered in Egypt in the mid-18th century, are The Gospel of Mary and Pistis Sophia (Faith Wisdom). In The Gospel of Mary, written in the 2nd century, Mary Magdalene consoles the disciples who are confused and disheartened by Christ's absence after his ascension into heaven by reassuring them that the spirit of Jesus is still among them. She alone was privileged to hear additional salvific words of Jesus at the end of his life because the Savior loved her more than any other woman. Mary tells of a mystic encounter she had in which she experienced the soul's sojourn through the spheres. This angers Andrew and Peter; they refuse to believe her, and Peter persuades the others that, had Christ had further revelations about the cosmos, he would have unveiled those secrets to them instead of to a woman. He demands of the other disciples, "Did Christ prefer her to us?" Levi answers that question in the affirmative, saying to Peter, "If the Savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her. [The Savior] loved her more than us." Pistis Sophia explains the existence of a goddess of wisdom, spouse of the Lord, who, like the Magdalene, experiences a fall from grace because of her attraction to material things, undergoes repentance, and regains elevation to a position of power and glory. In this text, there is also an antagonism between Mary and Peter because Peter accuses her of monopolizing theological conversations. Mary complains to Jesus that she is afraid of Peter because "he hates our sex." But Jesus exonerates Mary Magdalene before all his followers, declaring that it is she who will receive "the light" because her "heart strains toward the Kingdom of the Heavens more than all [her] brothers." The repeated focus on the conflict between Peter and Mary is certainly informed by the misogyny characteristic of the Roman world in the early centuries ce (the pagan Celsus [fl.180] discounted the resurrection because it was based on the "reports of hysterical women"), but it also relates to a larger question as to where authority would lie within the emerging church.
The Gnostic Gospels are texts written in the first few centuries by groups of Christians who had a very different interpretation of Jesus' message than that represented in the New Testament, particularly evident in their position that the flesh and the whole of the created, material world is corrupt and evil and only the spirit is worthy. Those holding what we know as the orthodox position opposed and eventually condemned Gnostic religious views. Several proscribed Gnostic texts were hidden around 400 ce in Egypt and discovered only in 1945. One of the striking differences between the Christian Gnostic Gospels and Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is the role of women in the cosmic design and in prominent leadership positions within the fledgling church. Mary Magdalene is an important figure in many Gnostic texts, yet she is not featured as a repentant prostitute, but rather as a woman who has a special and loving relationship with Jesus. Gnosis refers to a special or mystical knowledge, and Mary Magdalene is portrayed as most able to comprehend Christ's
message and meaning in a way that the other disciples cannot, because she intuits through a lens of mystic and spiritual love. She is "the woman who knew the All" and "inheritor of the Light," the principle decipherer of gnosis for the other disciples. She is Christ's "partner" or "consort," and in the Gospel of Philip the sexual connotation of this image is developed: "the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene … he used to kiss her often on her mouth." In this text, Jesus and the Magdalene are lovers, but Philip is principally interested in the metaphorical dimension of human love, which symbolizes the union of Christ and the church. Some Gnostic writings, however, do focus on a physical relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. A document called Great Questions of Mary has Jesus revealing to the Magdalene obscene, orgiastic ceremonies which must be performed before salvation can be achieved.
In the late antique and medieval periods, characters in the Old Testament were often viewed as "types"—a sort of parallel or precursor—of or for characters in the New Testament. Miriam the Prophet , the sister of Moses, was often viewed as a type of Mary Magdalene inasmuch as they both appear as penitents; Miriam was cursed with leprosy and banished for seven days for questioning her brother's behavior (Nm 12). In a slightly different way, Hippolytus of Rome (d. around 235) saw the figure of Mary Magdalene as the Bride from the Song of Songs who seeks her Bridegroom at the tomb (3:1–4): an allegory of the love between Jesus and his church in which Mary is the church. He develops another important typological association between Mary Magdalene and Eve . A mirror image of the first Eve who forfeited her right to eternal life in one garden (Eden), Mary Magdalene becomes the New Eve and counters that mistake by finding the new life, the risen Christ in the Easter garden.
Out of a prostitute, Christ made an apostle.
—Pierre de Celle
The most fertile period of speculation about Mary Magdalene was during the Middle Ages (accelerating in the 9th and 10th centuries, at its height in the 12th century), when legends of her life after the crucifixion proliferated. These legends were pieced together out of clues from the Gospels, bits of narrative borrowed from the lives of other saints, and the imaginations of medieval hagiographers. As one anonymous 14th-century biographer said in describing Mary's life, "I do not trouble myself about this [chronology] … it delights me to tell of the Magdalene and of what she did … according to my fancy." The persona of Mary Magdalene, the most beautiful of all women, lends itself to embellishment better than that of most saints because of the extremes which characterized her life; she knew wickedness and sanctity, grief and ecstasy. Tales of Mary's later life exist in virtually all vernaculars and locales in which Christianity has taken hold. She was much discussed by ecclesiastics in both the Eastern and Western churches. She was the subject of Latin hymns from the early church through the poetry of Francesco Petrarch (d. 1374), who was especially devoted to the Magdalene; he called her the "sweet friend of God." Mary was a favorite topic for Jacobus de Voragine in his compendium of saints' lives called the Golden Legend (1276). Both medieval France and England produced numerous sermons, poems, songs, and plays about the Magdalene, one of which was falsely attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400). Mary Magdalene naturally appears in virtually all literature, drama, and scholarly discourse on the events surrounding Easter.
For Modestus, patriarch of Jerusalem (fl.630), Mary Magdalene died a virgin and a martyr in Ephesus. Isidore of Seville (d. 636) calls her "star of the sea" from an interpretation of the etymology of her name. Based on the Hebrew word for tower (migdal), Mary was often characterized as a tower well fortified by faith; writers saw Mary, the tower, as a metaphor for the church. It was widely accepted in the Middle Ages, and is recorded in the Golden Legend, that the Magdalene was married to St. John the Evangelist and that it was their nuptials being celebrated at Cana when Jesus turned water into wine (Jn 2.1–10). The association may derive from the scene in John 19:25–27 where Mary Magdalene and John are together at the foot of the cross with Mary the Virgin. A 14th-century Italian biography of Mary Magdalene says that after the wedding feast Jesus took John away with him, "wishing that he should remain pure." It was at this point, according to legend, that Mary Magdalene, in her resentment and despair, turned to a life of sin: "She became a common prostitute and of her free will founded a brothel of sin … for seven devils entered into her at once, and continually plagued her with foul desires" (Honorius of Autun, De Sancta Maria Magadlena). Clearly, Honorius is embellishing from Mark's reference to Mary's seven devils (Mk 16.9). Those seven devils were often interpreted as the seven deadly sins which, in Jean Michel's Mystère de la Passion (1486), are personified as actual characters who discourse with Mary. Another legend tells of two Mary Magdalenes, one of whom went to France while the other sailed to Spain with St. James. (The story of Mary's travels to France finds an airing in a current work entitled Holy Blood, Holy Grail in which Mary Magdalene makes her way to Marseilles carrying in her womb the "Holy Grail" which is the child of Jesus. Mary's descendants marry into the house of the Frankish kings, and thus the blood of Christ enters the veins of several European royal dynasties.)
In the high and late Middle Ages, a genre of writing called romance literature developed around chivalric themes and tales of courtly love into which the story of Mary Magdalene and her beloved Jesus fits nicely. In many texts Mary and Jesus are fashioned into courtly lovers; yet, consistent with the strictures of courtly love, that affection is not played out on the physical level, and often the passion shared by the two is largely allegorical of the soul's yearning for the divine. For instance, a 10th-century vita (life) of Mary Magdalene says that when Jesus died she "grieved with the grief of a forsaken lover." A 12th-century treatise mistakenly attributed to Rhabanus Maurus (d. 856) says of Mary, "the fire of love raged … into a burnt offering, in an insatiable desire for her Redeemer… Mary suffered as lovers are accustomed to suffer." The late medieval Digby Mysteries puts these words in Mary's mouth: "Show my best love that I was here!/Tell him, as he may prove,/that I am deadly sick/ And all is for his love." In Michel's Mystère, Mary is a coquette adorned with finery, a mistress of seduction, young, rich, exceedingly beautiful with the form, coloring, and proportions of the ideal heroine of the romance genre. Her suitors are aristocratic knights decked out with falcons on their wrists, gaily whistling lyric ballads of love. Thomas Robinson, in his Life and Death of Mary Magdalene (c. 1621), calls Jesus himself a "heavenly paramour." Despite the fact that most authors portrayed the reformed Mary Magdalene as pious and earnest, the Mary of the English Towneley Plays was not able to abandon her flippant flirtatiousness, and that is why women were not allowed at the last supper: "It was because of Mary, because [Peter] saw her smiling."
According to the most popular medieval legend of Mary Magdalene (which incorporates elements of the story of Mary of Bethany and of the unnamed woman of Nain), evident in England as early as the 8th century, but not gaining wide currency until the 12th century, Mary Magdalene was the daughter of noble parents who were descendants of kings. She, along with her sister, Martha, and brother, Lazarus, inherited Magdala, Bethany, and property in the city of Jerusalem. Mary, despite her advantages of wealth and breeding, became a common sinner until her conversion in the house of the Pharisee, where she performed the famous penitential act of washing and anointing Jesus' feet. After Christ's ascension into heaven, Mary lived on in Jerusalem for 14 years, at which time a great persecution against Christians ensued. "Unbelievers" put Mary along with several other people into a rudderless, oarless boat "for to be drowned." There is great variety in different traditions about who set out with Mary. Usually Martha, Lazarus, and Maximin, one of the 72 disciples (Lk 10.1), are among the party. The hapless group eventually arrived safely in Marseilles, France, where they found shelter under the portico of a pagan temple. Mary Magdalene preached the gospel to those coming to make sacrifices to "false gods"; she was even able to convert the king and queen of the land (after appearing in their dreams for three successive nights) by promising them that if they were faithful they would bear a son. The queen became pregnant, and the now-devout royal couple, seeking to deepen their understanding of Christianity, set out for Rome to visit St. Peter. On the journey a storm arose, and during the turmoil the queen delivered a son but died from complications, leaving the rest of the party with no choice but to leave the bodies of the mother and son on a forsaken, rocky island. The king went on to Rome, saw Peter, traveled to the Holy Land, and on his return to France insisted on stopping at the island to pay respects to his dead wife and son. Miraculously, the child was still alive, having taken nourishment from the milk-filled breast of his mother's corpse. She was also brought back to life by the intercession of Mary Magdalene, and the happy family returned to France and assisted in the conversion of the land to Christianity.
Mary Magdalene, her work as "apostless" now completed, "desirous of sovereign contemplation," and in remembrance of her former sin hoping to forever more avoid the sight of a male face, sought out a deserted cave called Ste. Baume in which there was "neither water, nor herb, nor tree" (some traditions place the cave in Arabia) and lived the last 30 years of her life there. At this point in the legend, the details of Mary's life are largely borrowed from the biographies of another saint who shares her name, Mary of Egypt , who lived five centuries after the Magdalene. Both women were sinners and both ended their lives in repentant solitude. Mary of Egypt became a prostitute at the age of 12. At one point in her life, she made her way to Jerusalem, and, when her entry into a church was barred by an invisible force, she was struck with a horrible recognition of her sins. She repented and, with only three loaves of bread, retired to the desert where she lived in penitence for 47 years. In the version of this story tailored to the life of the Magdalene, Mary was provided nourishment by being lifted into the heavenly choirs at each of the seven canonical hours and fed on celestial food. A further detail of Mary's hermetic seclusion, which may have been borrowed from the life of a Roman martyr, St. Agnes (d. possibly c. 304), is that when the Magdalene's clothes finally disintegrated from age, her golden hair grew long enough to cover her nakedness. When the hour of her death approached, Mary appeared in the nearby church where St. Maximin, with whom she had fled to France so many years before, was priest, received the Blessed Sacrament from him, and the Lord and his angels lifted her soul into heaven. She was buried at St. Maximin's church, and countless sick, blind, demon-possessed, and repentant sinners were miraculously cured at her tomb.
Because of the importance and attraction of Mary Magdalene, it is not surprising that controversy continued to follow her long after her death. In medieval Europe, her memory was kept fresh by a disagreement as to the location of her remains. From about 449, the Eastern Church claimed that after the resurrection Mary Magdalene moved to Ephesus with John the Divine and Mary the Virgin to preach the gospel, and that her body was buried first in Ephesus in the cave of the Seven Sleepers and then moved to Constantinople in the 9th century. In the West, by the end of the 13th century five different churches claimed to have her corpse; in addition, 60 other bits and pieces of her body, or objects she owned, were held in various locations as precious relics. Among them are a lock of the hair with which she wiped Jesus' feet, a portion of her forehead touched by the resurrected Christ, some of the spice she used in anointing Jesus, and the rock upon which she sat when Christ appeared to her in the garden. (This list also illustrates the Western assumption that Mary Magdalene was the unnamed woman in the Gospel stories previously cited.) The two churches whose claims to have Mary Magdalene's remains were most credited are St. Maximin and Vézelay. According to one tradition, Mary was interred at the church of St. Maximin in Provence—buried there by Maximin himself. A later tradition has it that her body was never in Ephesus or Provence at all but that the saint was laid to rest in Jerusalem and her bones carried to Ste. Marie-Madeleine in Vézelay, Burgundy, in 1042 by a monk called Badilon on his return from the Holy Land. Yet another camp said that Badilon transported the bones from Provence to Vézelay, and another version has it that in 745 Gerard, count of Burgundy, removed the body from Provence to Vézelay for safekeeping from Arab attack. When questioned about the validity of their claim, the monks of Vézelay assured the skeptical that the Magdalene herself had appeared standing outside her tomb saying, "It is me, whom many people believe to be here." They provided further "proof" in 1267 when they invited the French king, St. Louis IX, to witness the exhumation of Mary Magdalene's corpse (which, when exposed, was fragrant and adorned with copious tresses of yellow hair) and its reburial in a larger, more elaborate reliquary. To commemorate the occasion, the arm, jaw, and three teeth of the saint were distributed amongst the crowd, and the king himself kept a considerable portion of the body. This event did not deter the monks of St. Maximin from declaring in 1279 that they also had found the body of Mary Magdalene in the crypt of their monastery church. The saint's head was put in a golden reliquary shaped like a head, on which a royal crown was perched. Despite the wide disparity among the various versions of the Magdalene's resting place, droves of medieval pilgrims visited her remains in Ephesus, Provence, and Vézelay, which in the mid-11th century became the most popular pilgrimage center in France. During the 16th-century wars of religion, the remains of Mary Magdalene at Vézelay were burned along with the church. The cave at Ste. Baume (Holy Balm) in Provence, where Mary Magdalene was reputed to have lived the last 30 years of her life in solitary penitence, also became a center of pilgrimage after a Count William identified it in 935. The spot became especially popular in the 13th century, and in 1254 received as a pilgrim St. Louis IX. Although the site fell into neglect in the early modern period and was ravished during the French Revolution, in 1822 (before 40,000 people), the cult of Mary Magdalene at Ste. Baume was reinstated.
Because of Mary Magdalene's complex and disparate identifications, she lends herself to veneration by virtually every class of Christians and became the patron saint for several trades and institutions. Because she mistook Jesus for a gardener, she is the patron saint of gardeners. Her role as myrrhophore (one who carries myrrh) makes her a logical patron for apothecaries. As symbol of the contemplative life, she is a natural patron for monastic orders and mystics. As a penitent sinner, she became the patron, even the symbol, of the reformed prostitute. The 14th and 15th centuries saw the flourishing of the Order of the Penitents of St. Mary Magdalene, approved by Pope Gregory IX in 1227 and called "White Ladies" because of the white robes they wore. The group set up houses in towns and cities all over Europe to provide refuge for those prostitutes wishing to renounce their lives of sin and become brides of Christ. Not all of those seeking refuge in the order were destined for a religious vocation; the houses also acted as temporary havens for prostitutes who were making the transition to a new life. In 1324 at Naples, the Order of Magdalene, a community of reformed prostitutes cum nuns, was established. By papal decree, all the revenue of public prostitutes dying intestate went to the new order. By the 17th century, in England, repentant prostitutes were known as "magdalens" or "Magdalen women "; 18th-century reformatories for women were called "Magdalen-houses"; and in 19th-century Victorian England, Magdalenism became a synonym for prostitution.
Some who sought a patron in Mary Magdalene identified with her role as the consummate contemplative—the woman of Bethany who listened at Jesus' feet while her sister Martha fussed with dinner, the woman who spent the last 30 years of her life in a cave at St. Baume fasting and praying—rather than as a sinner. The Magdalene was a special friend of and model to both the Italian mystic Catherine of Sienna (1347–1380) and the English Margery Kempe (c. 1378–after 1478), whose most notable characteristic was her uncontrolled weeping. Margaret of Cortona (1247–1297) was tortured by anxiety because she was not a virgin and therefore excluded from the highest celestial reward. But she found solace in her identity with Mary Magdalene who, though she had lived a carnal life, was elevated to the rank of virgin in heaven. In a mystical vision, Margaret of Cortona was assured that "there is none above Magdalene in the choir of virgins." Mary Magdalene appeared wearing a robe of silver and a crown of precious jewels which Christ told Margaret that Mary had earned in the "desert cave." Margaret of Cortona's biographer described her as "a second Magdalene."
Not all the discussions of Mary Magdalene have been adoring of her. Especially beginning in the 13th century, many medieval writers stressed her sinful nature, focusing on her role as the fallen woman and her identification as the common prostitute portrayed in Luke, who was saved by God's grace, not her own merits. Mary Magdalene was especially suspect because of her great beauty and rich, flowing, fair hair, which a Middle Low German poem claims was dyed. She was a metaphor for luxuria and vanitas and became a focal point for much misogynistic discourse which described the woman as a weak, carnal, insatiable temptress. The Carmina Burana has Mary Magdalene singing the words, "In worldly joy I shall end my life… I shall take care of my body and with different colors I shall adorn it." In a work produced in 1430, Mary Magdalene boasts of her "proud little breasts" and announces that she is "available to all." Michel's Mystère has Mary Magdalene (the woman of Nain) seeking out Christ at the home of the pharisee because she heard that Jesus was blond and beautiful, and she lusted after him. Some thinkers went so far as to deny that it was the Magdalene to whom the risen Christ first appeared, claiming the distinction for Mary the Virgin because of their objections to the notion that a fallen woman would be so honored. Christine de Pizan (c. 1363–c. 1431) defends her sex by reference to Mary Magdalene: "If women's language is so blameworthy and of such small authority… our Lord Jesus Christ would never have deigned to wish that so worthy a mystery as His most gracious resurrection be first announced by a woman." She scoffed at some preachers who claimed that Christ told Mary Magdalene to announce his resurrection because he knew that, women being gossips, the news of his return would thus spread all the more quickly.
Magdalen women (c. 1820s–early 1970s)
Irish "fallen women" who were confined in convents, where they worked as unpaid launderers.
In Western society, the stigma attached to a woman who became pregnant while unmarried was until the last decades of the 20th century enormous and often irreparable. Magdalen women, so called in reference to Mary Magdalene , the repentant prostitute who was the beloved follower of Jesus, were "fallen women" in Ireland who were confined to convents because of their transgressions. Beginning around the 1820s and continuing into the early 1970s, thousands of these women worked without pay in convent laundries until their deaths, when they were buried in unmarked graves on convent grounds. Magdalen women included not only unmarried women but sometimes also their daughters (some of whom left the convents upon attaining their majority), orphans, and exprostitutes. Families sometimes placed unconventional women there as well. This practice was revealed to the world at large in 1993, when the destruction of 133 graves of Magdalen women by a Dublin convent provoked a national scandal. (The land was intended for a real-estate development.) Grown daughters of Magdalen women, including some who had grown up working in convent laundries, came forward to talk of their experiences and attempt to locate, usually without success, their mothers or their mothers' graves. Although diocese authorities refused to comment, a Dublin nun, Sister Meta Reid , noted: "Society didn't want these women. Their families didn't want them. Yes, we were unjust, but we were unwittingly facilitating a system that was unjust." A monument to Magdalen women may be erected in Dublin.
The Day [New London, CT]. October 25, 1993, p. A2.
Mary Magdalene became an extremely useful saint for the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. The reform Council of Trent (1560s) put special stress on the humanity and affective attraction of the Christian message. The prevailing image of the Magdalene was of the faithful penitent in her French grotto, granted salvation as a gift of Christ. Given to extremes of emotion, a depth of feeling, and an unwavering love for the Savior, Mary Magdalene became the embodiment of the Counter-Reformation spirit. Not unpredictably, she was a focus of criticism by Martin Luther (d. 1546), Ulrich Zwingli (d. 1531), and other reformers who demanded that her cult be abolished (however, this does not represent the only reaction to Mary Magdalene by Protestant denominations). The most significant furor of the period over the Magdalene came, however, not from the Protestant camp but from a leading French humanist, Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples, who asked that the three women subsumed under the identity of Mary Magdalene be differentiated. He claimed that Mary of Bethany, the sinner in Luke, and the Mary who found the empty tomb were three different women. In 1521, Lefèvre d'Etaples was accused of heresy by the Faculty of Theology at Paris University, and his works were placed on the index of forbidden books; he recanted.
Artistic treatments of Mary Magdalene through the ages have been as abundant and diverse as her appearances in literature, and the way the Magdalene is portrayed (and the particular stories or legends stressed) mirrors in a predictable way the values and interests of the period in which the artwork was produced. The earliest representation of Mary Magdalene comes from a house at Dura-Europos in Syria and portrays that aspect of her biography which was most important in the first several centuries: as one of the myrrhophores who discovered the empty tomb. Through the medieval period, the images of the saint expanded beyond her role at the tomb, and she is portrayed in her many guises in multitudinous variations. But she appears most frequently as the penitent sinner—weeping, anointing, and adoring her Savior. Counter-Reformation art also stresses the penitential aspect of Mary Magdalene, but focuses not on the sinner in Luke, but on Mary's later life as a hermit in the cave of Ste. Baume where she is no longer beautiful but gaunt and thin from fasting, clothed only by her long flowing hair, her garments having long since rotted away. Some late medieval German art actually casts Mary Magdalene in the role of the mythical, animalistic "wild man" who inhabits remote unpeopled regions. She is shown with a covering fur, rather than hair. The representation of Mary Magdalene in scenes of Jesus' death are often designed to contrast her with the Mother of God. Mary the Virgin is generally restrained in her remorse because of her understanding of Christ's mission, whereas the Magdalene rushes like a maenad to weep at the feet of Jesus; she lets loose her sorrow in a flood of tears, a face distorted by grief, and gestures of despair. (The English word "maudlin" is derived from Mary Magdalene.)
In 15th-century Germany, however, began an artistic innovation in the representation of the saintly hermit that became a trend, then a fad. The naked penitent is not so much covered by her long hair as framed by it. Her curls swirl around her voluptuous form, revealing and describing her body which is no longer emaciated but comely and titillating. Artists of the Renaissance became less and less interested in the theological aspects of the Magdalene in her grotto and more intrigued by the aesthetic possibilities of the scene. From the 15th to the 18th centuries, despite censure by some church leaders who urged decorum, Mary Magdalene became a coquette, a Venus figure; her now fully revealed nakedness was (somewhat disingenuously) allegorized as unashamed divine love. Antonio Correggio painted her nude, lying on her stomach, absorbed in a book upon which rest the nipples of her sensuous breasts (1522). In reference to Titian's similar portrayals of the same scene (1560s), a contemporary commented, "The flowing mane makes a golden necklace around the naked alabaster [breasts]." Other famous Renaissance and Baroque representations of Mary Magdalene which fall into the same class are those by Domenico Tintoretto, Annibale Carracci, Correggio, and Artemisia Gentileschi .
By the late 17th century, it was common for wealthy aristocratic women to have their portraits painted in the guise of various historical or mythological characters. One of the favorite "dress-up" characters was Mary Magdalene, except that she was often chosen because this particular subject allowed the high-class women an opportunity to undress. The Magdalene was not selected here for her virtues or vices, but because there was a long and generally respectable tradition of portraying her partially naked in her bucolic grotto. In France, it was particularly fashionable to be painted à la Madeleine, and several of the Sun King's (Louis XIV) mistresses were represented in this way. Representations of Mary Magdalene from the 19th and 20th centuries parallel the period's inclination to question the fanciful legends that have for centuries been spinning off of the basic Bible narrative. People seeking the "historical Jesus" were attracted to scenes of the Gospel characters in very human terms. The special love between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, which has been a subject from a very early period, was explored through the strongest visual images. For example, one Belgian artist portrayed Mary Magdalene masturbating below a cross to which is nailed a haloed penis. Auguste Rodin (d. 1914) represented Mary Magdalene and Jesus as very mortal, very physical lovers, and some artistic treatments show her pregnant, carrying Jesus' child. This representation is not unprecedented; some medieval art portrays Mary Magdalene in the late stages of pregnancy, but the image is allegorical: the womb is fruitful with spiritual gifts. The representation also creates correspondences between Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mother of God.
Mary Magdalene has not been neglected in music. She was the subject of hymns in the medieval period, and in the early modern era, musical pieces commemorated Mary Magdalene in what was then the most popular conception of her: the penitent in her grotto. Some of the most famous works are by Andrea Gabrieli (d. 1586), Claudio Monteverdi (1617), and Lorenzo Giustiniani (d. 1620). In Marie-Magdeleine (1873), one of Jules Massenet's operas about women of questionable virtue, the artist envisions Mary Magdalene as a sultry oriental courtesan (1873).
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the conception of the Magdalene has reverted to a 1st-century view in some respects. She is first and foremost the faithful friend and assistant of Jesus, who stayed by her Lord at the end and was the first to see him resurrected. The Catholic Church has come into line with the traditional Eastern position that Mary of Bethany, the sinner in Luke, and Mary Magdalene were three separate women. Also, the stories about Mary Magdalene's later life in France, questioned as early as 1641 by Jean de Lyon, a scholar from the Sorbonne, and again by Louis Duchesne in 1894, have been discredited. One result of the 19th-century effort to find the "historical Jesus" has been a denigration of Mary Magdalene because of the layer after layer of myth attached to her. The scholar David Friedrich Strauss, who rejected the historicity of much of the Bible story, mocked the Gospel account of resurrection which had been founded upon "the ravings of a demented and lovelorn woman … she having been formerly a demoniac" (1836). Ernest Renan (d. 1892) was not flattering Mary Magdalene when he claimed that the "glory" of the resurrection belongs to her.
Strangely, however, at the same time that theologians and scholars are establishing that much of the traditional lore about Mary Magdalene is fictitious, novels, movies, and artistic images of her in her traditional guise as the repentant sinner continue to proliferate. In the 19th century, her name was firmly entrenched in the popular imagination with two issues that were no longer related to religion: the "Great Social Evil" of prostitution and the inequitable position of women in a society which often forced them to lead secret lives because of societal constraints on their options. Mary Magdalene was the acknowledged model for several beautiful fictional heroines who were forced by society's strictures to enter a life of sin; famous among them is Madeleine Férat (1868) by Emile Zola. Another way in which the Magdalene manifested herself in the 19th century was in association with the Western orientalist fascination with the East which arose as European imperialism brought more and more Westerners to the East. Mary Magdalene fit nicely into romantic conceptions of an exotic oriental beauty trapped by her own sexuality—which was thought to be so much a feature of the Eastern personality.
Martin Scorsese's 1988 film interpretation of the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, and the public reaction to it, demonstrate that Mary Magdalene is still an important emblem for our era. The Last Temptation further demonstrates that, despite virtual unanimity on the position that the sinner in Luke and Mary Magdalene were not the same person, Mary as a metaphor for human sexuality and its conflicted relationship with the spiritual or divine is still very necessary. Scorsese's film follows a fairly traditional composite of the Gospel story in which Mary Magdalene is the repentant prostitute who, once redeemed, joins Jesus' following. The portion of the film that resulted in cinemas being bombed, boycotted, and vandalized comes at the end as Jesus hangs dying on the cross. His last temptation is an opportunity to end his tortures, give up his mission, and live the life of an ordinary man. In a dream sequence, he chooses that option, marries, fathers a child by Mary Magdalene, and, when she dies, lives and procreates with Mary and Martha of Bethany. Although the film raised a storm of protest, its treatment of many themes, including Mary Magdalene, is very traditional. Mary Magdalene is first a sinner, then reformed—the special friend of Jesus. As is typical in Western culture, that which most tempts men to veer from the divine is represented by the feminine. Two other motion pictures of the late 1980s, Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal (1989) and Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film about Love (1988), explore similar themes with similar treatments of Mary Magdalene. In Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's opera Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), Mary Magdalene is the sinner, but is treated as an essentially positive force. The work stresses the scene in the home of Simon the Leper where the unnamed woman (in this case presumed to be Mary Magdalene) anoints the exhausted Jesus to the chagrin of Judas and the other disciples who think the money spent on the oil could better go to the poor and that Jesus compromises himself by associating with "women of her kind." A very intense Jesus assures the men that only Mary has understood his mission. The poor, he sings, will always be among us. But Mary intuits that he, the Savior, will be on earth only a short time and should be adored here and now. In a later scene, Mary Magdalene again reveals her deeper understanding of the uniqueness of Jesus when she ponders how to love this man who is clearly not "just one more."
Mary Magdalene has been firmly instated to her role as first apostle and participant in Christ's ministry. There is a growing tendency to see her as the leader of the group of women who provided the material means of support for the traveling preachers and who were full and equal participants in the movement. Even the negative stigma of the seven devils has been reinterpreted. The New Catholic Encyclopedia states that the seven devils is a reference to a "chronic nervous disorder, rather than a sinful state." One important difference between the positive view of the Magdalene in the late 20th century and affirmations of her in earlier Gnostic gospels is that for the Gnostics Mary was a valued apostle and leader of the new Christian community, but only because she has become like a man. She says to the other disciples, "He has prepared us and made us into men." In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus assures Peter that it is proper that Mary, a woman, be part of the inner circle, for "every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven." The association between women and the profane, material world was so strong that despite Jesus' insistence that there be "neither male nor female" (Gal 3.28), placing a woman at the center of the Christian narrative of redemption caused discomfort and needed justification. Current scholarship has restored the Magdalene to her position as a respectable member of Jesus' inner circle whose gender was not of particular importance. She was a devoted and constant member of Jesus' radical revolution.
Bruckberger, Raymond-Leopold. Mary Magdalene. Translated by H.L. Binsse. NY: Pantheon, 1953.
Garth, Helen Meredith. Saint Mary Magdalene in Mediaeval Literature. The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, series 67, no. 3. Baltimore, 1950.
Grant, Robert M., ed. Gnosticism: A Sourcebook of Heretical Writings from the Early Christian Period. NY: Harper & Bros., 1961.
Haskins, Susan. Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor. NY: Harcourt Brace, 1993.
Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. NY: Random House, 1979.
Rushing, Sandra M. The Magdalene Legacy: Exploring the Wounded Icon of Sexuality. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1994.
Saxer, Victor. Le Culte de Marie Madeleine en Occident des origines à la fin du moyen âge. Auxerre-Paris, 1959.
Martha Rampton , Assistant Professor of History, Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon
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