Photo by bisla

The lives of Mary Magdalene

A fine book explores her life and afterlife

Artillery Row Books

One of the more rewarding tomes for insomniacs, or for those curious enough to delve into esoteric matters, is the massive Lives of the Saints — in several volumes, by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834–1924), Anglican clergyman and philanthropist. On perusing its generous pages and informative illustrations, it would appear that on the whole, southern Saints seem to have been more entertaining than those from the frozen north (Irish proselytisers, with tattooed eyelids, cannot have been all that attractive): jumping and jerking monks and nuns included some individuals who managed to remain suspended in the air for several hours, we are told, and one can only marvel at the stamina of the southerner, Denys or Dionysius. Beheaded in c.250, he managed nevertheless to walk, head held in his hands before him and accompanied by a choir of Angels, all the way from Montmartre to the place where now stands the Abbey named after him.

Mary Magdalene: A Cultural History, Philip C. Almond (Cambridge University Press, £30) St Mary Magdalene borne aloft by Angels, her modesty protected by her untrimmed locks. Painting by Gianpietrino Birago (fl. c. 1471/4-1513), from the Sforza Book of Hours held in the British Library.

Now Professor Almond has given us an account of St Mary Magdalene, the importance of whose cult in England alone is clear from almost 190 ancient dedications of churches. Both Oxford and Cambridge possess colleges named after her. The saint’s popularity is also obvious from her frequent mentions in mediæval calendars. She was Patroness of repentant sinners and of the contemplative life. Yet the canonical Gospels say very little about her at all, apart from that Christ cast out seven demons from her, that she was present at the Crucifixion, that she was the first witness to His Resurrection, and that it was she who announced that Resurrection to the Apostles. It seems to have been Pope Gregory I, aka “The Great” (r.590–604), who gave weight to the identification of the Magdalene both with Mary, the sister of Martha of Bethany, and with the woman who was a sinner and anointed Christ’s feet at the house of Simon with her tears and precious ointment (probably spikenard), drying them with her copious locks. In this respect, the connotations are very clear, for anyone carrying out such an anointing during a meal would either be a slave or a prostitute. The erotic element is present, brought out in several later images of the Magdalene which Almond reproduces, including those of Jules-Joseph Lefebre (1836–1911), William Etty (1787–1849), Francesco Furini (1603–46) and Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1638).

St Gregory’s fusion of the three Marys and his identification of the seven demons as the Seven Deadly Sins, along with the hint that the Magdalene had formerly used the unguent to scent her body in preparation for “forbidden acts”, seem to have led to her association with prostitution. In ancient times those now known as “sex workers” would have employed lavish use of perfume. That is often suggested by the inclusion of a pot or alabaster jar containing ointment in images of the saint. In this sometimes irritatingly repetitive book (devils are cast out rather too often, even for my tastes), on the pages where various depictions of the Magdalene are illustrated, there is plenty of blank paper that could have been used for extended captions to explain the details shown. This would have greatly helped readers.

Further apocryphal matters concerning the Magdalene were later added to her story, linking an already composite Mary with Mary of Egypt and therefore with the vita eremitica. This ascetic, cave-dwelling, unclothed, perpetually fasting existence was leavened every so often by angelic elevations heavenward for spiritual sustenance. During these ærial journeys, nakedness was concealed beneath disconcertingly prodigious tendrils of untrimmed hair. The saint was also supposed to have gone to Ephesus where she was associated with John the Apostle. In another legend, she evangelised Provence, became a hermit in the Alpes Maritimes, and at the end was associated with Saint-Maximin and with Vézelay.

The composite Gregorian Mary Magdalene has now ceased to exist

There are many other legends. It would have been very unusual for a Rabbi to have been unmarried; thus, in some accounts there seems to have been a suggestion that the Magdalene was Christ’s lover and even spouse, thus giving rise to stories of Holy Blood, Holy Grails, the Sacred Feminine and Royal Bloodlines descending from Jesus and Mary. There is no real evidence at all for any of that, however. Almond sensibly states: “the lives of Mary Magdalene are pious fictions … but this does not diminish their historical value. They cannot be understood as records of what happened in the first century. But they can be interpreted as stories that reflect the religious lives of those who created them and of those who, whether for otherworldly or … worldly reasons, engaged with them … For their creators and their readers, the lives of Mary Magdalene revealed transcendent truths and ultimate realities”. This was obviously realised by the Council of Trent, which involved the exemplar of the Magdalene in its teachings on Penance, for her sins, which were many, were forgiven, because “she loved much”.

In February 2021 the present Pope, Francis, decreed that Mary of Bethany would be joining Martha and Lazarus on their Feast-Day on 29 July. Thus Mary Magdalene, with her Feast on 22 July, was officially detached from both Mary of Bethany and from the Fallen Woman of St Luke’s Gospel. The composite Gregorian Mary Magdalene ceased to exist. Given her immense popularity through the centuries, the multiplicity of her relics, and her importance as a model for the repentant sinner finding salvation, one might be forgiven for wondering if such a detachment was altogether wise. Saints who had human frailties were often more lovable than fanatical, self-denying, anorexic, self-flagellating, malodorous, unwashed bores.

Reading between the lines, the Magdalene’s access to expensive unguents might suggest that she was a sufficiently wealthy woman, able to provide for Christ and his followers from her own means. She brought “sweet spices” to anoint Christ’s dead body in the tomb, which suggests no shortage of funds, for such things cost considerable sums. Almond’s book tells the story of the idea of the Magdalene. It examines how and why Christianity, with a paucity of data, managed to construct the life of an almost ideal saint, a saint for all seasons — accessible, adaptable, a penitent with a past, yet someone who was the first witness to the resurrection and the first to inform the disciples of that resurrection. She was both ascetic and erotic, a second Eve, even (as Almond suggests, somewhat startlingly) a “Party Girl”.

Despite its flaws, this book (decently printed in Padstow, I am pleased to see, rather than in China) is important, for it reveals transcendent truths in tales about a sacred time past when heaven and earth were close. The sacred merged with the profane, when God became Man and walked on this earth, with Mary Magdalene as his companion. There have been suggestions that the Magdalene, as the lover of Christ, might even have been the Holy Grail (after all, there is no sacred vessel in the sense of a cup in The Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci [1452–1519]). In Bayreuth, many years ago when working there, I was privileged to attend the Generalprobe (final rehearsal) of Parsifal. I recall, with painful clarity, the shock I experienced when Parsifal asks Gurnemanz, “Wer is der Gral? (Who is the Grail?)” The answer comes: “There’s no saying; but if you are called to its service that knowledge will not remain withheld … no earthly path leads to it, and none can find it unless the Grail leads him there”.

Quite so. As Almond writes, the lives of Mary Magdalene were myths that mattered. They still do.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover