Saturday, July 22, 2017

Saint Mary Magdalene, a more "human" example of faith.

Today is the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, a key figure in the life of Christ and perhaps one of the most enigmatic saints of Christianity, many legends have been told about this important saint. Instead, I would like to introduce her story; a story of remission, forgiveness, redemption and renewal in Christ, an example to all and below Christ, below the Virgin, someone we can not just admire but associate with us.

Mary Magdalene - Carlo Crivelli - c.1485 - Tempera on Panel - Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

מרים המגדלית‎‎, Μαρία ἡ Μαγδαληνή, Maria Magdalena, Mary Magdalene was a humble Jewish woman, she shared a common name of the time and must not be confused with the Mother of God or Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus and Martha. In the Gospels she is called the Magdalene, probably an association with the Sea of Magdala, later scholars, such as Saint Jerome, suggest it might indicate her great faith. Mary Magdalene has always been associated by Tradition as sexually immoral or as a prostitute, although this is not supported by Scripture, the Gospels do agree she was a great sinner, but it is her life after meeting Jesus, who casts the seven demons out of her, which is considered much more significant.

St. Mary Magdalene - Jan van Scorel - c.1530 - Oil on Panel - Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

She plays an important part in the salvific mission of Christ and in the life of the Apostles. In Luke 8, while Jesus was travelling with the disciples, he cured the evil spirits and diseases of Mary called Magdalene and the seven demons came out, this is when the loving power of God heals Mary the sinner and transforms her, a common woman, nothing like the Virgin Mary, but truly one of us, into someone worthy enough to be part of God's story here on earth in different way from the disciples, sometimes even more intimately. It is in fact during the Crucifixion (Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, John 19:25) that the figure of the Magdalene becomes central, unlike any other follower of Jesus she is specified by name as a witness of the main three events of the passion, beginning with the Crucifixion that she witnessed, at a distance. During the Deposition (Matthew 27:61, Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1), Mary Magdalene stands besides Joseph of Arimathea, with Mary (Mother of James) and they brought oils to anoint their Saviour's body, in fact an incredibly active part in the Passion. But it is at the Resurrection (Mark 28:1, Mark 16:19, Luke 24, John 20:1) that she truly fulfils her God's given mission. In the four gospels, Mary Magdalene is the first to witness the Resurrection of Christ, she was chosen among sinners to witness the miracle of Salvation, the first among sinners witnessed the fulfilment of what she also represented, Satan's sin being cast down and renewal, consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive in Jesus Christ the Lord, the Lamb who shed his sacred blood for the Magdalene, the Magdalene who is each and everyone of us. The Resurrection is announced in the Gospels in several ways, by beautiful angels or in the astounding meeting of the Christ and the Magdalene, Noli Me Tangere, "do not touch me!" the famous words Jesus tells Mary, because Jesus was pure, resurrected God and he had then worked through her and through mankind with his redemption. Her story is the story of Christ and the story of our Salvation.

Mary Magdalene - Piero di Cosimo - c.1490 - Tempera on Panel - Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

In the Middle Ages, Mary Magdalene, although canonically a great sinner, was seen as being a repentant prostitute or a loose woman, at least in the West - these claims were never supported in the Gospels. This notion can be traced as far back as Ephrem the Syrian in the fourth century, but it was Pope Gregory I during a homily in 591 that more or less made the claim somewhat official; he identified the Magdalene not just as a sinner but also with the company of Mary of Bethany; Martha and Lazarus, starting the so called theological malformation known as the "composite Magdalene" which followed Mary into the Eastern Schism: four saints, one feast. The seven demons removed by Jesus represented the seven capital sins, and so the Magdalene incarnated all sins but also our redemption. An aspect which became her "trademark" in Western art and religious literature, fitting well with the importance of penitence in Medieval theology.

She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. What did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? It is clear, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance. Pope Gregory the Great (homily XXXIII).

The Raising of Lazarus - Geertgen tot Sint Jans - c.1480 - Oil and Tempera on Panel - Louvre Museum, Paris.

The so called "composite Magdalene" was never accepted in the East, where Mary was only seen as a disciple (in the broader sense of the term) and that she lived as a companion to the Virgin. Not only in the East it was unpopular, but also in the West. The Benedictines always celebrated Mary of Bethany, Martha and Lazarus on 29 July, but the Magdalene on 22 July. By the end of the Middle Ages (12th and 13th centuries), Mary Magdalene was generally accepted as the Apostolurum Apostola, the Apostle to the Apostles. She was commemorated throughout Europe and in England the Sarum Rite, the rite used in most of southern England included a beautiful collect:

Grant unto us, most merciful Father,
that like as blessed Mary Magdalene
by loving thy Only-begotten One above all things, 
obtained pardon of all her sins, 
so she may secure for us everlasting blessedness 
in thy compassionate presence.

Mary Magdalene was an especially popular saint for the Medieval man who always sought mediators in which he could identify; the Gothic, late Middle Ages were also a prolific time for mystic, "magical" tales; one of the greatest works of that time was the Golden Legend by Jacobus da Voragine, a Dominican Friar, a beautiful collection of the lives of the saints, from Saint George and the Dragon to the Finding of the Cross by Saint Helena. The Golden Legend stated that Mary Magdalene was in fact also rich and noble. 

...Magdalene abounded in riches, and because delight is fellow to riches and abundance of things; and for so much as she shone in beauty greatly, and in riches, so much the more she submitted her body to delight, and therefore she lost her right name, and was called customably a sinner.

Mary Magdalene - Antonio Vivarini - c.1476 - Tempera on Panel - Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

After the Ascension, the "Penitent Magdalene" spent the rest of her life as an hermit in a cave for thirty years, communicating with angels: 

...the blessed Mary Magdalene, desirous of sovereign contemplation, sought a right sharp desert, and took a place which was ordained by the angel of God, and abode there by the space of thirty years without knowledge of anybody. In which place she had no comfort of running water, ne solace of trees, ne of herbs. And that was because our Redeemer did do show it openly, that he had ordained for her refection celestial, and no bodily meats. And every day at every hour canonical she was lifted up in the air of angels, and heard the glorious song of the heavenly companies with her bodily ears. Of which she was fed and filled with right sweet meats, and then was brought again by the angels unto her proper place, in such wise as she had no need of corporal nourishing.

The Golden Legend interestingly, and perhaps because of the Dominican influence, sees Mary Magdalene as a preacher and evangeliser:

When Mary Magdalene saw the people gathering at the shrine to offer sacrifice to the idols, she came forward, her manner calm and her face serene, and with well-chosen words called them away from the cult of idols and preached Christ fervidly to them. All who heard her were in admiration at her beauty, her eloquence, and the sweetness of her message...and no wonder, that her mouth which had pressed such pious and beautiful kisses on the Savior’s feet should breathe forth the perfume of the word of God more profusely than others could.

These elaborate, beautiful legends were generally widely accepted by the Church and truly besides being splendid poetry, caused no arm and were usually based on real accounts. In fact, they were instrumental in spreading the faith.
The Anglican 1549 Book of Common Prayer kept the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene as a red letter day, then changed to a black letter day after 1552, interestingly the readings remained the same as in the Tridentine Mass. Here is the beautiful collect from the first prayer book:

Merciful father geue us grace,
that we neuer presume to synne through the example of anye creature, 
but if it shall chaunce vs at any tyme to offende thy dyuine maiestie: 
that then we maye truly repent, and lament the same,
after the example of Mary Magdalene,
and by lyuelye faythe obtayne remission of all oure sinnes:
throughe the onely merites of thy sonne oure sauiour Christ.

Mary Magdalene - English Master of the 15th century - c.1493 - Tempera on Panel - St.Catherine's Church, Ludham.

Mary Magdalene in the late Middle Ages became the second most represented Saint after the Virgin Mary. She was usually depicted as extravagantly dressed and with very long blond or reddish hair, often covering her whole body, a sign of prostitutes or noblewomen, not  the case among working or middle class women, weddings were an exception. But the iconography was a fulfilment of her changed nature in Christ.

Saint Mary Magdalene in Glory with Angels - Master of Gdańsk - c.1430 - Tempera and Gold on Panel - National Museum, Warsaw.

A common iconography is that of the Penitent Magdalene. According to Medieval theology the saint had spent a number of years wandering in the desert as an hermit after leaving her life, a very similar iconography to that of Mary of Egypt, another prostitute who became a hermit. Magdalene’s long hair covers her whole body and as saint dialogued with angels, she is often depicted in an “elevation”, with angels raising her up as recounted in the Golden Legend. 
Another common iconography is that of Mary Magdalene at the foot of the Cross during Jesus’ Crucifixion, she often appears with the Virgin Mary and Saint John as another spectator. She is often found kneeling, clutching the shaft, kissing Jesus’ feet or usually standing in grief at the left behind Mary and John. According to an 11th century English manuscript she is seen as an expressional device rather than a historical motif, intended as the expression of an emotional assimilation of the event, that leads the spectator to identify himself with the mourners

Crucifixion - Hans Memling - c.1491 - Oil on Panel - St. Annen Museum, Lübeck.

She usually appears in the Resurrection of Lazarus besides Martha and Mary of Bethany or in portraits while reading and/or with a vase containing the holy oils for Jesus' body, but probably her most famous iconography is that of the Noli Me Tangere. Christ meets the Magdalene, she mistakes him for the sepulchre keeper, and a garden spade can be usually seen in the foreground, but the beauty of these works is the surprise and the fulfilment of the Christian message when she dramatically falls before the Lord. 

Noli Me Tangere - Marcello Venusti - c.1550 - Oil on Panel -  Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.
When she meets for the first time the resurrected Christ who warns her not to come close, for redemption had been fulfilled in her and mankind; and the very God that he was had become ready for rejoining the Father in heaven. Sin had been broken. This is the story of Mary Magdalene and why this great sinner is the closest to us all, with Jesus in her heart, sin in her past and resurrection in her future. Here is a hymn I wrote to her (to be sung to Austria):

Mary Magdalene, most Blessèd,
born from sin, yet saved by Christ;
forth from her he cast the demons,
she became a Saint so bright.
By his mercy was she saved;
when the sin was torn apart,
Peace of God, his gracious off’ring,
unto her doth Grace impart.

Christ was Crucified by man,
so to save our souls from sin;
at his feet stood Mary weeping,
for the glorious King of kings.
Three whole days of silent waiting,
Mary first to see his face;
the great Christ was now alive,
raised from death, restored the Grace.

And from sin to Grace the story,
tells the victory over sin;
Mary Magdalene, the blessèd,
healed by Christ’s own power within.
To the Trinity be glory,
to the Father and the Son;
to the Holy Ghost above,
ever Three and ever One.


  1. Excellent piece - love the pictures. I am curious - in preparing this piece did you come upon anything that suggested that Mary Magdalene travelled with John the Apostle and Mary the mother of Jesus to Ephesus?

    1. Thank you for your kind comment. Indeed I have, but I thought it would have worked better in one of my previous articles about the Blessed Virgin Mary.

  2. Yes, a beautiful and thoughtful portrayal of the Magdalene.