Mary Magdalene. Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages

    Looking for information about Mary Magdalene, we discovered a very interesting book by American researcher Katherine Ludwig Jansen. Extracts from her fundamental research paper clarify the issue addressed in our previous publications. It becomes obvious how the image of one of the most praiseworthy women of all times was deliberately distorted, why and for whom it was beneficial to ascribe to her the past of a loose and demon-possessed woman, supposedly cured by Jesus. We will underline the most important points, and our comments on the text will be in red.

    The book PDF version may be downloaded from here:


Katherine Ludwig Jansen. THE MAKING OF THE MAGDALEN


    To emphasize the seriousness and authenticity of the material given in this book, let us cite lines from the Acknowledgements section, where the author expresses her gratitude to institutions that supported the research and to libraries where the author worked with archives, including the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana!    

    “I have incurred many debts to both institutions and individuals during the research and writing of this book. It is a delight at last to give credit where credit is due.

    Many libraries and archives granted me access to their collections during the course of my research. I am grateful to the archivists of the Archivio di Stato in Florence and Naples, as well as the Archivum Generale Ordinis Praedicatorum, Rome. Most of my time was spent in libraries, however, and I would be remiss if I did not express my gratitude to the directors and librarians of the Biblioteca Antoniana in Padua, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence, the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice, the Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III in Naples, the Library of the Sacro Convento in Assisi, the British Library, the Library of Balliol College in Oxford, the Library of St. John’s College in Cambridge, and the Index of Christian Art in Princeton. But it was in the libraries of Rome where this project really took wing: my thanks go to the Biblioteca Angelica, the Biblioteca Casanatense, and the Biblioteca Vallicelliana, as well as the libraries of the École Française and the Biblioteca Herziana. The Library of the AmericanAcademy in Rome became a second home and its superb staff a second family to me. But at the heart of my research lies the incomparable collection of sermon manuscripts housed in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. I regard myself as having been privileged to have worked in the Vatican Library during the prefecture of Fr. Leonard Boyle.

     This book had its genesis as a doctoral thesis which enjoyed the beneficence of many institutions including the Fulbright-Hays Fellowship to Rome, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation Research Grant, the American Historical Association’s Bernadotte E. Schmitt Research Grant, PrincetonUniversity’s Harold E. Dodds Fellowship, and the Mellon Foundation’s Post-Enrollment Fellowship. The Rome Prize from the AmericanAcademy in Rome allowed me to complete the dissertation in the splendor of the refurbished villa atop the Gianicolo. Caroline Bruzelius, Pina Pasquantonio, and the entire Academy staff made it a memorable year that I will always cherish. The dissertation prize from PrincetonUniversity’s Department of History, which released me from a semester’s teaching, as well as a summer grant from CatholicUniversity’s Research Fund, allowed me to transform the dissertation into a book. Finally, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities aided immeasurably in preparing the manuscript for publication. I wish to thank all these institutions and the people who represent them for their financial munificence.”



    “This book examines the development of the cult of Mary Magdalen both through the lens of medieval preaching, and the responses of those who heard the friars’ sermons. In a broader sense this is a study of later medieval religious culture, which uses the figure of the Magdalen to open up the richly symbolic world of the later Middle Ages. Structured around questions of origins, transmission, and reception, the task of this book is to explain why, by the later medieval period, Mary Magdalen had become the most popular female saint after the Virgin Mary. Toward that end, this study unpacks the social meanings of the Magdalen to demonstrate how sanctity functioned in the later Middle Ages.

    Why the later Middle Ages? I concentrate on the later medieval period because it was the era when devotion to Mary Magdalen was at its height in the Mediterranean regions of Provence and Italy. It is a fact first observed forty years ago by Victor Saxer, doyen of modern critical studies on the saint. Saxer, however, was interested primarily in the history of the cult of the Magdalen in the High Middle Ages, particularly in northern France. My study picks up chronologically and geographically where Saxer’s effectively ends…

    …Sermon literature is the centerpiece of my research because sermons were the mass media of the day. They were a mediating culture between the institutional authority of the church and its lay audience…

    …Sermons do get us closer than theological treatises and other learned discourses to the religious message imparted to the plain people of medieval Europe. They were also the vehicle which transported the contents of the gospels to ordinary people

    …The first serious study of the historical figure of Mary Magdalen emerged from the field of textual criticism developed by humanist scholars in the early modern period. In 1517, the French Dominican scholar Jacques Lefevre d’Étaples fueled acrimonious debate when he concluded in his treatise, De Maria Magdalena, that no evidence supported the venerable Gregorian claim that Mary Magdalen was indeed one and the same person as Luke’s sinner and Mary of Bethany

    In this (20th) century, the Magdalen emerged from the realm of regional and confessional debate to draw the attention of modern critical scholarship from a wide array of disciplines. Beginning in 1937 Hans Hansel published a body of work focusing on the textual histories and transmission of the medieval Magdalen legends. Helen Meredith Garth’s Saint Mary Magdalen in Medieval Literature set its sights a bit broader and attempted to synthesize the medieval literature on the saint. Marjorie Malvern’s Venus in Sackcloth, a quirky survey of the figure of the Magdalen in literature and art, covered some two millennia of Magdalenian history.

    Recently scholars of early Christianity, particularly feminist scholars, have taken up the case of Mary Magdalen in an effort to demonstrate the presence of authoritative female leaders in the early Christian church. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Ben Witherington III, Carla Ricci, and Karen King have fixed on the historical Magdalen of the gospels as a means of spotlighting the important role of women in the primitive church…

     But the most important work on the saint, indeed the source on the cult of the Magdalen, is Monsignor Victor Saxer’s Le culte de Marie-Madeleine en occident des origines á la fin du moyen-âge. Written in 1959, it remains the most valuable piece of scholarship on the cult of Mary Magdalen in the West, chiefly for its work on the liturgy, which has not been superseded.

    When I began work on the Magdalen for my doctoral dissertation, from which this study has descended, the only recent major contribution to the field was a collection of conference essays entitled, Marie Madeleine dans la mystique, les arts et les lettres. Its essays, by no means centered on the medieval period, ranged far and wide in their subject matter moving easily from Petrarch to Georges de la Tour to Le Corbusier. It was a portend, however: the 1990s would usher in a flurry of scholarship dedicated to Mary Magdalen. Lilia Sebastiani’s Tra/Sfigurazione was published in 1992 as was the École Française de Rome’s volume of essays on the medieval Magdalen, containing important contributions by Nicole Bériou and Jacques Dalarun, among others. Susan Haskins’ Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor appeared in 1993. Haskins was trained as an art historian, Sebastiani as a moral theologian; nevertheless they approach the Madgalen similarly. Both books are big synthetic surveys, based on published texts, that encompass both the Roman and the OrthodoxChurches from early Christianity to the present. While revising my book for publication two more monographs appeared. The first examines the late medieval German legends; the second is a study produced in France of the figure of Mary Magdalen in medieval literature. The field of Magdalen studies has hardly had time to fallow in recent years; the 1990s seem to be the true era of “Magdalenian fermentation”…

    The chapters in Part Two trace the evolution of the Magdalen from Luke’s nameless sinner (!!!) to the symbol of luxuria in medieval sermons. I argue that preachers and moralists of the later Middle Ages invented a Magdalen to address philosophical and social exigencies: the nature of Woman, the care and custody of women, and the ever-increasing problem of prostitution. Through recourse to the symbol of the Magdalen these chapters disclose medieval gender discourse in the making. – The first allusion to Mary Magdalene’s image rigging for the church’s benefit!

    Part Three analyzes the Magdalen as the unrivalled symbol of penance in the later Middle Ages. I tie the Magdalen’s fortunes as penitential symbol to the rise of penitential devotion in both its sacramental form – the fourfold obligation enshrined at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 – and as it was expressed in the penitential spiritually of the laity. This section demonstrates not only how Mary Magdalen became the medieval model of penitence, but more important, it shows how she became the paradigmatic symbol of hope for all sinners in the later Middle Ages, explaining much of her universal appeal.”

     It turns out before the Middle Ages Mary Magdalene had not been a model of depravity, which eventually turned into a symbol of hope for sinners! We guess everyone’s aware of the fact that the giant church institution’s major income has always been coming from the postulate of the original human sinfulness, as well as from false suggestion to masses of believers that the church can forgive or pray for forgiveness of any sin in the name of God (let’s recall the church’s very profitable business on trading indulgencies in the Middle Ages, or just look at the contemporary church)!





What’s in a Name?

     “In the last decade of the fourth century, drawing on the work of Philo and Origen, Saint Jerome wrote a treatise entitled, On the Interpretation of Hebrew Names, that ambitiously set out to explicate the meanings of all the names mentioned in the Bible. His interpretations were cited throughout the Middle Ages. In his chapter on the gospel of Mark he noted: “Most people think that Mary is to be interpreted as “they illuminate me” or “illuminator” or “myrrh of the sea”, but it does not seem at all likely to me. It is better that we say… a “drop of the sea” or “bitter sea”.”

    “Saint” Jerome gave a damn about the fact that in the Roman Empire the name Mary had been associated with a concept of the Goddess of Love, traditional for peoples inhabiting the empire, and meant “shining” or “the Mother of a pearl”! But not “sorrowful”, “rejected” or especially “bitter”, as Jewish priests later on presented her name for masses, owing to “Saint” Jerome. This is an example of how one meaning can be substituted for an opposite one!


The Gospels

    “Any account of Mary Magdalen’s life must begin with the New Testament, the oldest historical source documenting the existence of this faithful follower of the teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. All told, the four gospels contain just twelve references to this woman, only one of which is independent of the passion and resurrection narratives. Luke 8:2-3 reports that “Mary who is called Magdalen” was the woman from whom Jesus cast out seven demons. After he did so, Mary from Magdala along with Joanna, Susanna, and “many others” became one of Jesus’ steadfast disciples, ministering to him from her own financial resources (Like 8:3)…

    In the gospel of Mark, generally agreed by scholars to be the oldest of the gospel accounts, the evangelist includes Mary Magdalen among the three Marys who arrive at the tomb early on Easter morning to perform the ritual anointing of the body… The evangelist then accounts that Mary Magdalen received the paschal privilege of seeing the risen Christ first, before all others: Jesus “appeared first to Mary Magdalen, out of whom he had cast seven devils.” A little detail was added to the image, and now the entire world thinks about Mary this way!!! A single sentence caused an enormous effect! This is a striking example of how public opinion is formed on a specific subject! How trustworthy such opinion is we shall see further.

    “According to scripture, then, Mary Magdalene is the woman whom Christ heals of demonic possession, who becomes one of his loyal disciples, who ministers to him during his lifetime, who stands beneath the cross at his crucifixion, who is present at his burial, who brings ointments to the tomb after his death, who is the first person (in three of the four accounts) to witness the risen Christ, and is the person on whom he bestows the honor of announcing the good news to the other disciples (in three of the four accounts). Thus she was doubly blessed: not only was she first to witness one of the central tenets of the Christian faith – the resurrection – she also received the paschal privilege of announcing it.”


The Gnostic Gospels

    “It is worth noting that the books contained in the New Testament are not unique early Christian witnesses to the life, teaching, and deeds of Jesus and his disciples. When, in the mid-second century, the authority of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John was established, alternative gospels, those authored by Gnostic Christians, were already in circulation. Gnosticism is a blanket-term comprising a number of second-century Christian sects such as the Valentinians and the Marcionites. What all had in common was the belief in gnosis, a Greek word meaning knowing or knowledge, that implies revealed knowledge or insight as distinct from empirical knowledge. Gnosis could be revealed knowledge of God, the universe, the destiny of humankind, or oneself. To receive gnosis was, in effect, to receive the ability to redeem one’s spiritual aspect. This is exactly the experience for the sake of which every human being is bornGnosticism, with its emphasis on personal inspiration, inevitably came into conflict with the institutional church whose insistence on tradition and hierarchy allowed the Gnostic sects no quarter. By the early Middle Ages the church had succeeded in suppressing most of the Gnostic sects. Indeed, it succeeded so well that until the discovery of a cache of Coptic texts at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945-46 (which yielded 52 Gnostic texts), most of what was known about Gnosticism came from the poison pens of its persecutors. Wow! None of the discovered texts contains even a hint at any “dark past” of Mary Magdalene! Quite the contrary! Let’s read further!

    There are three Gnostic gospels in which Mary Magdalen features prominently: the Pistis Sophia and the Gospel of Mary, both of which have been known since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, respectively, and the Gospel of Philip, which was among those Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi.

    In the oldest of these texts, the Gospel of Mary (the only gospel – canonical, apocryphal, or Gnostic – to be named for a woman), Mary Magdalen is both a prophet and the moral conscience of the disciples. She exhorts the other apostles to act on the Lord’s precepts and reveals a vision in which Christ extols her constantly of faith. As much as this was a commendation of the Magdalen’s unwavering faith, it was also an implicit rebuke to Peter, who had not only denied Christ three times in the course of one evening, but had even gone so far as to dismiss the Magdalen’s announcement of the resurrection as “idles tales”. Irked perhaps at the lengthy recitation of her vision, Andrew challenges its authenticity while Peter asks: “Did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge (and) not openly? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” Their verbal assault reduces the Magdalen to tears. Order is restored to the group only when Levi (read: Matthew) comes to her defense, reprimanding the others by observing that if the savior rendered her worthy, who were they to reject her? She, whom “he loved more than us”.

    In the Pistis Sophia, a third-century Gnostic text that takes the form of a dialogue between the risen savior and his disciples, Mary Magdalen’s privileged place as Jesus’ special interlocutor is preserved. Jesus compliments her thus: “Excellent, Maria. Thou you blessed beyond all women upon the earth… Speak openly and do not fear. I will reveal all things that thou seekest.” Again, as in the Gospel of Mary, the Magdalen is commended above the others, because it is she, not the other apostles, who through divine gnosis perceives the mysteries of the faith more perfectly. Indeed, because of her deep spiritual understanding, Mary Magdalen monopolizes much of the discussion (asking 39 of the 46 questions), much to the irritation of Peter, who twice breaks in complaining, “My Lord, we are not able to suffer this woman who takes the opportunity from us, and does not allow anyone of us to speak, but she speaks many times.” Though Peter’s pointed interventions do not prompt tears as they did in the Gospel of Mary, they do provoke this response: “I am afraid of Peter, for he threatens me and he hates our race [sex].” It’s an open secret that a person guided by hatred can do a lot to defame a real saint, can write additions, embellish, or simply slander another person. And this is exactly what Peter, his company and official followers of this so-called “apostle” eventually did.

    The theme of the Magdalen’s more perfect gnosis and the jealous rivalry it engenders among the male apostles reaches a fevered pitch in the Gospel of Philip, written in the latter half of the third century. Here, however, the Magdalen’s position as Christ’s favorite is more italicized than ever because of the sexual language and imagery employed in the text.

    And the companion of the […] Mary Magdalene, [loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her […]. The rest of [the disciples…]. They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?”

    A scholar of early Christianity has labeled this a “perplexing” passage, as indeed it is on first glance. But if we scrutinize what precedes it, namely, an explication of the kiss between the perfect, the passage becomes a bit less opaque. The kiss between those who have attained gnosis is thus explained:

    For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception for the grace which is in one another.

    In other words: those who have attained gnosis are able to exchange kisses that contain grace. As one scholar of Gnosticism has explained it: “It is in this context that Jesus’ kissing Mary ought to be understood. The Logos lives in those whom he has kissed, hence the disciples’ jealousy, for they are not yet worthy of the kiss.” But such a mystical reading does not attempt to make sense of the overtly sexual imagery with which the passage is suffused. Some scholars have argued that this imagery alludes to a tenet of Gnostic theology that posits a mystical bridal chamber where, in a sacrament of communion, male and female will eventually reunite for all time. From this union will come the perfection of humankind. It is an allegorical reading: Mary Magdalen and Jesus represent the Logos and the Spirit, Adam and Eve, male and female.

    I would suggest yet another interpretation that reads on both a mystical and literal level. Jesus’ kiss is a gift of grace, of gnosis or visionary understanding – bestowed on Mary Magdalen not despite her sex but precisely because of her sex. Conventional wisdom held that as a woman she was already inclined toward intuitive rather than acquired understanding. The apostles objected to this preferential treatment not only because they were unable to understand the mystical nature of the kiss, but also because they understood all too well that their sex, their maleness, precluded such privileged and sexually charged treatment. As Karen King has observed, “Prophecy is sometimes understood as the penetration of the body by a spirit, and thus was sometimes conceived and expressed in sexual terms. As a consequence of a system of heterosexual gender symbolization in which the penetrator is symbolically male and the penetrated is symbolically female, the penetrated body of the prophet could be understood to be either feminine or feminized.” In the monotheistic tradition where God is gendered male and a heterosexual perspective is assumed, the disciples took offense at the Magdalen’s preferential treatment because their sex precluded them from receiving similar treatment.

    What cannot go without remarking is the anxiety present in the early Christian community as revealed through and personified in the figure of the Magdalen. The tensions that bubble under the surface of the New Testament reach a rolling boil in the Gnostic gospels. Elaine Pagels has argued that such tensions reveal a problem with political implications: the crux of the matter was whether or not prophetic gifts translated into authority within the orthodox church. The dilemma was whether leadership in the church, following the Gnostics, would be charismatic, personal, visionary, and prophetic, or would it operate through tradition and apostolic authority handed down from generation to generation, from bishop to bishop? There is, however, another dimension to the problem: gender. When we take gender into consideration the problem becomes even more complex. Now the issue becomes: would ecclesiastical authority be based on feminine principles of vision, prophecy, and spiritual understanding (sapientia), as embodied by Mary Magdalen to whom Christ had appeared first and whom he had charged to announce the good news of the resurrection? Or would it be vested in the male principles of apostolic tradition, hierarchy and acquired knowledge (scientia) as represented by Peter, the rock upon whom Christ had built the church, bestowed the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and granted the powers to bind and loose (Matt. 16:18-19)? Here we’ve arrived at a whole bunch of questions associated with politics and power (where, as we know, people make their way over corpses, disdaining no means), such as why there are no female priests in churches nowadays. And one of the fundamental questions of Christianity as one of the world religions, which is the following: was Peter really the person upon whom Jesus built his church, bestowed the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and granted the powers to bind and loose? Every sensible person should think and answer: could Jesus establish his church, the church of Love for God, relying on a man with such moral characteristics as Peter had??? Or rather Jesus’ successor must have been his beloved, most faithful and gifted disciple, i.e. Mary Magdalene?

    Already, in the New Testament, Peter and the other disciples were beginning to reject the authority of the female prophetic tradition, notably dismissing the Magdalen’s announcement of the resurrection as “idle talk”. Those words of course are significant: idle talk was the normative mode of both labelling and dismissing female speech. The competition between Mary and Peter intensifies in the Gnostic gospels because, as Pagels has shown, the Magdalen represents the Gnostic bid for leadership in the Christian community that challenged the Episcopal authority of Peter’s successors. When, in the Pistis Sophia, Mary Magdalen expresses her fear of Peter who threatens her, it is a poignantly prophetic statement. The institutional church did more than threaten Gnostic Christianity – it suppressed it entirely. Yet the problem of female ecclesiastical leadership, whose authority derives from spiritually attained knowledge as distinct from knowledge acquired from tradition, did not die with Gnosticism, nor did it more outside the church into heresy; it remained a paradox at the very heart of Christian experience, and the figure of the Magdalen embodied it.


The Patristic Writers

    “When the fathers of the church turned their attention to Mary Magdalen the occasion was usually a commentary on scripture. They adverted to her most frequently when considering her role as herald of the resurrection. One of the earliest meditations of Mary Magdalen’s paschal role is in a commentary on The Song of Songs once attributed to Hippolytus, bishop and martyr of Rome (d. ca. 235). The author suggests that the Shulamite, or Bride of the Canticles, who was seeking her beloved (Cant. 3:1) in the garden, prefigured typologically Mary and Martha who sought Christ in the sepulcher. He explains that the women represent the Synagogue and in that capacity reveal the good news as apostles to the apostles (quae apostoli ad-apostolos) sent by Christ. He maintains:

    Lest the female apostles doubt the angels, Christ himself came to them so that the women would be apostles of Christ and by their obedience rectify the sin of the ancient Eve… Therefore the women announced the good news to the apostles… That the women not appear liars but rather truth-bearers… Christ showed himself to the (male) apostles and said to them: … “It is I who appeared to these women and I who wanted to send them to you as apostles.”

    Three items should be noted in this passage. First is that two women share the role as first witness. Mary is not identified as Mary Magdalen, but given her pairing with Martha it seems possible that Hippolytus was associating Mary Magdalen with Mary of Bethany, an identification which, as we shall see, eventually becomes routine. The second item to note is that the author seems compelled to have his Christ defend the words of women against the scepticism of the apostles echoing gender-related tensions we have already witnessed in the early church. Finally, the author’s vocabulary should be noted: he refers to the women as apostles.

    According to the gospels and the commentaries on them, Mary Magdalen, Martha and Mary, “the other Mary”, and of course the three Marys, all played a role in the history of salvation. The lack of specificity about to whom – precisely – Christ had shown himself and whom – precisely – he had designated to proclaim the good news of his resurrection was not of course due to exegetical incompetence. Imprecision arose from the daunting task of trying to reconcile the evangelists’ (apparently) inconsistent Easter narratives. A further difficulty with which the commentators had to contend was the “muddle of Marys” that populates the gospels. Christ’s immediate circle of female followers, in addition to the Virgin Mary, consisted of at least five other women called Mary: Mary mother of James the less and Joses, the “other Mary”, Mary of Bethany, Mary Cleopas, and of course Mary Magdalen. Theoretically, the place-name Magdala should have been enough to distinguish at least one Mary from the next; in practice it was not quite so simple. At one point Ambrose, clearly suffering the deleterious effects of an overdose of scriptural Marys, suggested that there were two Mary Magdalens. In an act of exegetical exasperation (possibly following Eusebius), he remarked:

    Some of the women are not aware [of the resurrection], others are… One Mary of Magdala does not know according to John, the other Mary Magdalen knows according to Matthew; the same woman cannot know it at first and then not know it. Therefore if there were many Marys, there were perhaps many Magdalens, because the latter is a surname, the former a place-name.

    Given such a muddle, how can the church assert everything written in the four gospels is the absolute truth and God’s words? And that there were no substitutions or distortions when the New Testament was composed? After what we’ve read above, any claims of priests on even a likeness of the truth become ridiculous! As for the muddle scale, read below.

    One might assume that the Virgin Mary, by virtue of her unique and exalted status as mother of Christ, stood apart from the exegetical difficulties posed by a surfeit of Marys and Magdalens. This was not the case, however. The Alexandrine method of textual analysis tended to produce a certain amount of ambiguity in relation to Marian identity. The elaborate literary conceit employed by these commentators sometimes identified the Virgin as the church, sometimes the Magdalen as the church, and all three as brides of Christ. Consequently, the personae of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen were not as entirely distinct as their individual biographies might suggest, Although Augustine had defined a clear division of labor in the history of redemption – one woman had brought Christ into the world while another had proclaimed the news of his resurrection; nevertheless such clarity did not always obtain, particularly in the East. In a discourse traditionally attributed to Cyril of Jerusalem, the author claimed that Virgin herself had told him that “I am Mary Magdalen because the name of the village wherein I was born was Magdala. My name is Mary of Cleopa[s]. I am Mary of James the son of Joseph the carpenter.” Thus in one fell swoop the Virgin Mary assumed the identities of three other scriptural Marys, all witnesses to the crucifixion.

    A later Coptic text, the apocryphal Book of the Resurrection of Christ, ascribed to the Apostle Bartholomew, exacerbates the confusion. Here the Virgin Mary appropriates the role of herald that the evangelist John (20:16-18) had explicitly assigned to the Magdalen (such conclusion was made exactly due to derogation of Mary Magdalene’s role and replacement of her by Jesus’ mother):

[The] Savior came before them… and he cried out… “Thou Mary, the mother of the Son of God.” And Mary, who understood the meaning turned herself and said, “Rabonnei”… And the Savior said unto her, “Go thou unto My brethren, and tell them that I have risen from the dead.” … Mary said unto her Son, “Jesus, my Lord, and my only Son, bless Thou me… if indeed Thou wilt not allow me to touch Thee.”

    Here the Virgin literally takes the words – “Rabboni” – out of Mary Magdalen’s mouth. Evidently she had also received the noli me tangere admonition and then been dispatched to bear the news of the resurrection to the apostles. In the West this sequence of events in the Iohannine resurrection drama always retained Jesus and Mary Magdalen as the central protagonists. In actual fact, there is no contradiction in the aforesaid Coptic text, for it means delivery of God’s Son by the Feminine Spiritual Nature. We will surely elucidate the subject in our further articles.

    Ephrem the Syrian’s hymns also tended to fuse together the personae of the Virgin and the Magdalen. Robert Murray has suggested that this penchant for mingling the Virgin Mary’s identity with those of the other Marys reflected a strong eastern, particularly Syrian, devotion to the Virgin. Especially it was a form of praise to endow the Virgin Mary with all the important female roles and laudable attributes of women who figured in the gospels… People in the East knew the truth and less concealed it than their western “colleagues” did.

    As distinct from eastern writers, a theme that preoccupied the Latin fathers was Mary Magdalen’s compensatory role in salvation history, that is, her role as a counterweight to Eve. Although it was probably the fourth-century bishop Hilary of Poitiers who introduced this theme into western exegesis, Augustine’s analogy based on likeness is emblematic of such a style of interpretation. He argued in an Easter homily that just as “humanity’s fall was occasioned by womankind, humanity’s restoration was accomplished through womankind, since a virgin brought forth Christ and a woman announced that he had risen from the dead.” And in a celebrated statement he suggested: per feminam mors, per feminam vita (through a woman death, through a woman life). By bearing the news of the resurrection, Mary Magdalen, who symbolized the female sex, restored the order of creation that original sin and its consequences had destroyed. In other words, she helped to bring about salvific symmetry. The formulation was this: both Mary Magdalen and the Virgin Mary represented the new Eve, paralleling Christ’s role as the new Adam. In her capacity as the new Eve, the Virgin brought salvation into the world by giving birth to Jesus Christ while the Magdalen as the new Eve proclaimed that salvation was at hand when she announced his resurrection. Speculations on the postulate of the human Fall through the feminine gender were very beneficial for men who craved for unlimited power by bringing the female nature and the spiritual power coming though the female nature down to a minor role of defective and oppressed beings. We can observe the results of the masculine domination in the deep crisis of contemporary human society.

    In theory it would seem that the Latin fathers had bestowed an honor on the Magdalen by positioning her as co-redemptrix in salvation history, but in practice it was not always the case. For unlike the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalen was frequently sullied by Eve’s original sin. Here is how Ambrose formulated the problem:

Mary worshipped Christ, and so was sent to the apostles as the first herald of the resurrection, dissolving the hereditary link of the female sex and immense sin. The Lord performs this through a mystery: since where sin had once abounded now grace super-abounded (Romans 5:20). And rightly a woman was sent to the men so that she who had first announced sin to man, would be the first to announce the grace of God. Excellent conclusions for those who agree with the original female depravity statement! At that, understanding the purely political implication of this postulate and interest in depreciation of the creative female nature, it becomes clear who benefited from introduction of such a myth.

    Although Ambrose does not directly identify Mary Magdalen as a sinner, he implies her sin first by the fact of her sex. Because she is female she is implicated in original sin. His quotation of Saint Paul on the merits of grace is also revealing. Essentially he argues that grace now suffuses Mary Magdalen where sin once abided. Similitude called for a female sinner to rectify the sin of Eve the first female sinner. Because it was a charge for which the immaculate Virgin was ill-suited, the responsibility fell to Mary Magdalen whose reputation was now stained by Eve’s sin. What Truth can we talk about, when the principle of similitude requires “little” sacrifices? Obviously, we see another glaring example of juggling with facts and violation of the Truth. For whose benefit? One automatically comes to conclusions regarding the ascribed sanctity of these people, who are actually Jewish priests and participants of the institution that was directly involved in Jesus’ crucifixion, then distorted His Teaching and established religion on its basis…

    Ultimately there was discussion, but no real consensus about Magdalenian identity in the late antique period. Instead she remained rather ill-defined: sometimes a sinner, sometimes the herald of the resurrection, sometimes both. But this was about to change. In the late sixth century Pope Gregory the Great transformed the Magdalen’s identity, producing the familiar saint whom subsequent centuries would venerate as Mary Magdalen.”


The Composite Saint

    On 21 September 591 Pope Gregory the Great preached a homily in the basilica of San Clemente in Rome that established a new Magdalen for western Christendom. In his thirty-third homily that took as its theme the gospel periscope Luke 7:36-50, Gregory proclaimed: “We believe that this woman [Mary Magdalen] whom Luke calls a female sinner, whom John calls Mary, is the same Mary from whom Mark says seven demons were cast out.” In other words, Gregory collapsed into one individual the identities of three distinct women described in the gospels(This is another large-tonnage “little stone” aimed at those who unconditionally trust church dogmata drummed into parishioners’ heads!) First was the unnamed female sinner who, unbidden, entered the banquet of Simon the Pharisee where Jesus was reclining. In a memorable and dramatic conversion she washed the Lord’s feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with her perfumed oils (Luke 7:37-50). Second was Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha, at whose beckoning Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45, 12:1-8). Third was the demonically possessed Mary Magdalen, whom Jesus had healed of her affliction and who then became his devoted disciple (Mark 16:9).

    By appropriating the identity of Luke’s sinner, Gregory the Great’s Magdalen inherited a sinful past; by assuming the character of Mary of Bethany, the Magdalen acquired siblings (Martha and Lazarus) and became associated with the contemplative life. It was an audacious but not capricious piece of exegesis. Gregory was evidently responding to questions about Magdalenian identity, which, as we have seen, was already the subject of not a little confusion…

    Gregory the Great’s Magdalen was a multifaceted figure whose pious ministry to Christ, witnessing of the risen savior, heralding of the resurrection, and contemplative nature rendered her worthy of veneration. But most important to Gregory was the Magdalen’s symbolic aspect as an exemplar of “hope and repentance” for all sinners. This aspect of her persona of course derived from her identification as Luke’s repentant sinner whose sins were forgiven by the Lord. Gregory’s composite saint ordained the agenda of Magdalen veneration for the entire Middle Ages and well beyond. So great was the pontiff’s authority that the Roman Church accepted his Magdalen for almost fourteen hundred years, until the liturgical calendar reform of 1969.” No doubt it was the most important point for the Pope. As we’ve mentioned before, redemption is what the entire financial empire of both Orthodox and Catholic churches is based upon. Owing to this doctrine, Vatican still significantly influences the entire world. Catholic church has a worldwide army of strictly disciplined clergymen, numerous monastic orders and missionary communities; it is sided with political parties and diverse public associations in different countries, which provide the church with sizeable funds collected from the flock. Moreover, Vatican is a shareholder and investor of a number of multinational corporations, including monopolies, in particular in the USA, UK, Switzerland, France, Spain, and Latin America. And it is also a large landowner in Italy, Spain, Germany and other countries, receiving enormous rent amounts annually.




    “The final body of evidence relating to the rise of Magdalen veneration in the West is the hagiographical or legendary material. Among the earliest hagiographical accounts of Christian saints are the passions written to preserve the heroic deaths of the early Christian martyrs. When, after the third century, widespread persecution of Christians ceased, a new type of saint – the confessor saint – emerged in the martyr’s stead. Some of the earliest examples of this new saint were the eremitical saints of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. These hermits withdrew to the desert to live ascetical lives of contemplative solitude… A new literary genre, the saint’s vita, or life, evolved to accommodate the dimensions of the new spiritual martyr: the vita emphasized the heroic life rather than the heroic death of the saint. It also came to serve a variety of functions. Vitae were written to enhance what was already known about the saint, and as Stephen Wilson has observed: “Lives were written to stimulate devotion and provide examples of piety; … [and] to further the interests of particular groups or institutions.” (As we can see, telling the truth about saints was not a priority for those who wrote vitae. Clanging of gold coins is heard again…) The various vitae of Mary Magdalen illustrate each of these points.

    Mary Magdalen’s first vita, known now as the vita eremitica, is a hagiographic text of ninth-century southern Italian provenance, possibly from the pen of a Cassianite monk. It is believed to have been imported to the West by Greek monks fleeing Byzantium. The vita eremitica assimilates Mary Magdalen’s biography to the vita of Saint Mary of Egypt(! and again the Truth is above all…) one of a number of ascetical female sinner-saints whose lives were included in the vitae patrum, a popular collection of legends about the eastern desert saints. The vita eremitica narrates how after the ascension of the Lord Mary Magdalen fled to the solitude of the desert and for thirty years lived as a hermit without food or clothing. This vita was rapidly transmitted to the rest of Europe; it was known in England, for example, by the middle of the ninth century (and people believed!). The conflation with Mary of Egypt’s biography is significant: Mary of Egypt had been a prostitute before her penitential conversion. (Bravo, distorters, again!)

    Though not technically a piece of hagiography, the vita evangelica, a homily once attributed to Odo of Cluny, is nonetheless an important text in the legendary cycle because it is the first attempt to combine into one narrative sequence all the gospel passages relating to Mary Magdalen’s life. That is, it creates one coherent vita out of all the scriptural passages pertaining to Mary Magdalen, Mary of Bethany, and Luke’s unnamed sinner. Colorful fictional embellishments are a mark of the vita evangelica, a late ninth- or early tenth-century sermon issuing from the environs of Cluny. (They did a “good” job!)

    The Magdalen’s vita was further enhanced in the eleventh century to account for the presence of her relics in Burgundy. A pious fiction began circulating that narrated how a monk called Badilus was sent to Provence in 749 to rescue Mary Magdalen’s imperilled relics from Saracen invaders. The monk found the area in ruins, but the saint unharmed. He was also granted a vision of the saint who informed him not to fear since his mission had been ordained by God. The next day, in a classic furtum sacrum, as this sort of holy theft has been described, Badilus spirited Mary Magdalen’s bones off to Burgundy.

    If a holy theft brought the saint’s relics to Vézelay, it might well be asked how they had come to rest in Provence in the first place. Another legend, the vita apostolica, conveniently explained that feat. It claimed that as victims of early Christian persecutions, Mary Magdalen and a cohort of Christ’s disciples were set adrift at sea. Providentially, they washed ashore in Marseilles where they evangelized the pagan Gauls. Mary Magdalen preached in Aix-en-Provence, converting the city to Christianity. Afterwards, those new Christians proclaimed her colleague Maximin their first bishop. It was not long before the vita eremitica and the vita apostolica were stitched together to form what is now known as the vita apostolico-eremitica. It related how, after an apostolic career preaching and saving pagan souls in Gaul, Mary Magdalen retired to a cave where she lived out the rest of her life in ascetical contemplation. When she died she was buried at the church of Saint-Maximin in Provence, from whence the Burgundian monk Badilus allegedly robbed her body approximately seven hundred years later.

    These legends supported Vézelay’s claims to possessing Mary Magdalen’s relics. The possession of relics was important for two fundamental reasons. First, the relics and the miraculous power they contained attracted pilgrims to Burgundy, bringing prestige, not to mention the lucrative pilgrimage trade, to the region. Second, with the arrival of the Magdalen’s relics, Burgundy now had a powerful protector since it was popularly believed that a saint was bound by a reciprocal arrangement to protect the region in which his or her relics resided. In return for protection, the local community paid respect to the saint in the form of supplications, ex votos, feasts, offices, and church decoration. But there was something more important beyond the benefits of prestige, profit, and protection. By claiming Mary Magdalen’s relics, Vézelay was forging a link to apostolic Chrtstianity. Vézelay was not alone in so doing; it seems to have been part of a European phenomenon that began in the ninth century when Compostela began proclaiming that Saint James had preached and been martyred there, and wily Italian merchants, in a celebrated furtum sacrum, smuggled the body of Saint Mark out of Alexandria in a barrel of pork, translating it to its present quarters in Venice. Neither of these locations of course had had contact with any of the twelve disciples; not for that matter had France or England, two other regions that both began forging links to apostolic ChristianityWho cared there had been no contact of the said regions with Christ’s disciples? The imagination of priests and their “court journalists” drew such contact quite profitably! 

    …In this context, Richard Landes has observed that “the cult of an apostolic saint who knew Christ in the flesh should appeal to an anxious audience; with trust and devotion to the saint, one could assure oneself of favor and salvation.” It is in this same context of fashioning bonds to apostolic Christianity that the translation of Mary Magdalen’s relics to Vézelay must be understood.

    A relic, however, was only as important as its last miracle. Fortunately for Vézelay the legendary Magdalen performed many miracles during her lifetime and after her death. She is associated with spectacular cures, assistance with matters of fertility and childbirth, the liberation of prisoners, and the raising of the dead, all of which were appended to her vita. Jacobus de Voragine (d. 1298), the Dominican author of the Golden Legend, the most celebrated medieval collection of saints’ lives, drew on these miracle stories as well as various legends to construct his own vita of Mary Magdalen. Although probably intended as a reference tool for preachers, the compendium soon outstripped its original purpose and became a bestselling devotional work. The Golden Legend survives in over seven hundred Latin manuscripts and more than one hundred and fifty editions from the first century of printing. By the fifteenth century it had been translated into most vernaculars, including Dutch and Czech. The Magdalen of legend was thus widely disseminated through popular devotional literature and the sermons that drew upon it.

    Given his affection for the Dominican Order whose members were both consummate preachers and compliers of saints’ lives alike, it is more than likely that the pious Angevin prince, Charles of Salerno, became familiar with Mary Magdalen’s legendary career in Provence exactly through those means of transmission. It is also possible that he first learned of Mary Magdalen’s apostolate in Provence at his mother’s knee, as Beatrice herself was provençale, and the heiress to the country of Provence. Learning of the saint’s apostolate in Provence is one thing; concluding against all evidence to the contrary that her relics remained buried in Provence was quite another. Nonetheless he did so and in 1279 Charles miraculously discovered Mary Magdalen’s relics in the crypt of the church of Saint-Maximin in the county of Provence, his own backyard, as it were. (What a lucky discovery!) On May 5 of the following year, with great pomp and ceremony and in the presence of the archbishops of Narbonne, Arles, and Aix, among other ecclesiastical and noble dignitaries, the saint’s relics were translated to appropriately opulent reliquaries. Mary Magdalen’s head was placed in a golden reliquary studded with precious gems, while her body was placed in a separate but equally precious vessel. Contemporary chroniclers such as the Franciscan friar Salimbene, not to mention the somewhat later Dominican historians Ptolomy of Lucca and Bernard Gui, whose account of the second provençal inventio opened this chapter, attested to the prince’s discovery of the saint’s relics. They surely attested to the discovery, for the prince most probably was very generous in his gratitude for such a righteous godly deed!

    Charles’s personal piety and his particular devotion to Mary Magdalen are without doubt genuine. Yet it is likely that reasons beyond pious personal devotion prompted Charles to rediscover the body of Saint Mary Magdalen, thereby associating his name with hers. (Really? Who would have thought it?!) For it must be remembered that at the same time that the prince discovered the saint in his family’s comital territory of Provence, his father, Charles of Anjou, was otherwise occupied in founding an Angevin empire in the Mediterranean. (Wow, another coincidence!?) Although his imperial ambitions were on a much grander scale, his territory at the time included Anjou, Maine, Provence, and Forcalquier. But his most recent and most prized acquisition, made through the conquest of the Hohenstaufen in 1266, was the Regno, which included most of the Italian peninsula south of Rome, and for the moment the island of Sicily. Though Runciman’s assessment that Charles I’s “piety was in its way genuine, but it chiefly took the form of a belief that he was the chosen instrument of God” is clearly overstated, it nonetheless makes the point that religious matters were not always foremost in his thoughts. As such, it fell to his son, Charles, Prince of Salerno, to associate the Angevins with a saintly protector. Feeling the anxiety of influence, the upstart house of Anjou, a cadet branch of the Capetian kings of France (Charles I of Anjou was Louis IX’s youngest brother), may well have felt the need for a patron saint. Who better for a new and ambitious dynasty to ally itself with than an intimate of the Lord who had brought Christianity to the heart of the Angevin empire and whose remains (and therefore intercessory powers) still resided there? Just as Saint Denis had served to authenticate the rule of the Capetian kings in northern France, now Saint Mary Magdalen would protect and legitimate the house of Anjou in the Mediterranean… As they say, it’s nothing personal, just business…

    Some years later, the Dominicans at Saint-Maximin, eager to publicize the origins of their royal foundation in Provence, fabricated a more divinely inspired version of Charles’s discovery of Mary Magdalen’s relics. This legend described how in the year 1279, on the vigil of the feast of Saint Mary Magdalen, a desperate Charles of Salerno, taken prisoner during the War of the Sicilian Vespers, threw himself on the mercy of his patron saint. That night when the Magdalen appeared to him in a vision, the prince implored her to liberate him from his prison cell in Barcelona. Moments later Charles found himself miraculously transported to Narbonne. In return for his divine deliverance, the Magdalen ordered the prince to go to Saint-Maximin to recover her earthly remains that were not resting in Vézelay as legends claimed. Her relics would be readily identifiable by means of an ancient label (preserved in a wooden casing) which would read: “Here lies the body of blessed Mary Magdalen.” In addition, she told the prince that he would discover the following important relics: the noli те tangere, the piece of flesh still adhering to her skull that marked the spot where the risen Christ had touched her when he appeared to her in the garden on Easter morning; an amphora containing bits of blood-soaked earth that she had collected from beneath the cross at Calvary; her hair now turned to ashes; and finally a green shoot growing from her tongue. She then instructed the prince to make discovery known to all Christendom so as to increase devotion at her provençal shrine. She further ordered that Charles build a new church in her honor and a convent where the Order of Preachers were to be installed. She selected the Dominican friars to care for her shrine because, in her view, they were following in her footsteps as the new apostles of Christ. Finally she requested that the translatio of her relics be celebrated annually and that an office be established for that feast.

    Bound in manuscript to the Book of Miracles of Saint Mary Magdalen, the Dominican Legend was written sometime after 1458, a century and a half after the incidents it purports to describe. Its purpose was to make manifest the divine concatenation of events that ineluctably linked together Saint Mary Magdalen, first an intimate of the Lord Jesus Christ, then the apostle of Provence; the Angevin dynasty, rulers of Provence and the Kingdom of Naples and devotees of the saint; and the Dominican Order, the great preachers of the day and the new evangelists of southern France whose convent was founded by royalty and protected by the saint. Thus history, assisted by legend, bound sanctity to politics. What was missing, however, was historical accuracy. Although there is little doubt that in 1279 Charles of Salerno discovered some relics that he believed belonged to Saint Mary Magdalen, he did not receive the vision directing him to do so while held prisoner in an Aragonese prison cell. The War of the Sicilian Vespers did not occur until 1282 and Charles was not taken prisoner until 1284, a problematic five years after the discovery date of her relics.

     But then historical accuracy was not the point of hagiographical legend. The essence of writings on the saints was to be “ethically rather than factually true,” as Alison Goddard Elliott has observed. Moreover, hagiography was meant to edify as well as to serve the interests of specific “textual communities”, to use Brian Stock’s phrase. We have seen texts do just that. The Gnostics devised their “knowing” Magdalen; Gregory the Great, responding to vexing questions about Magdalenian identity, preached a composite saint; the eremitical monks of southern Italy made of the Magdalen a contemplative ascetic; Vézelay created a patron who had evangelized Gaul; the Angevin dynasty cultivated relations with a protector whose relics watched out for the welfare of the house of Anjou; and the Dominicans of Provence constructed a Magdalen whose miracles at their shrine outshone all those effected at Vézelay, and whose patronage had divinely established them as the new apostles of Christianity.

    The overview of sources for the history of the cult of Mary Magdalen has revealed how by the mid-fifteenth century the historical Mary Magdalen had been transformed into a legendary miracle-worker and patron saint. We have also seen how through the process of accretion and the pressures of the interests of textual communities the centuries enhanced the Magdalen’s biography and shaped her persona accordingly. Further, we have seen how the fraught issue of authority within the church – visionary or institutional – emerged as a gendered issue incarnated in the figures Mary Magdalen and Peter. This problem, though ignited by Gnosticism, was not inherently a Gnostic problem. It was a Christian problem, one that burned at the core of Christian identity. For the moment it will suffice to say that the type of problematic visionary authority embodied by the Magdalen did not vanish with Gnosticism. In the next chapter, and again in chapters 6 and 9, we shall see how later medieval discussions that focused on Mary Magdalen’s apostolic authority continued to reveal tensions concerning this matter in the Christian church. The problems that the figures Peter and Mary Magdalen represented would continue; but the later medieval period found ingenious strategies to finesse them…”



Prepared by Julia Matveyeva (Russia)

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