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Vision of St Maria Magdalena di Pazzi from the Museo de Bellas Artes, Granada (Pedro de Moya)

Who Was Mary Magdalene?

From the writing of the New Testament to the filming of The Da Vinci Code, her image has been repeatedly conscripted, contorted and contradicted

Simultaneously, the emphasis on sexuality as the root of all evil served to subordinate all women. The ancient Roman world was rife with flesh-hating spiritualities—Stoicism, Manichaeism, Neoplatonism—and they influenced Christian thinking just as it was jelling into “doctrine.” Thus the need to disempower the figure of Mary Magdalene, so that her succeeding sisters in the church would not compete with men for power, meshed with the impulse to discredit women generally. This was most efficiently done by reducing them to their sexuality, even as sexuality itself was reduced to the realm of temptation, the source of human unworthiness. All of this—from the sexualizing of Mary Magdalene, to the emphatic veneration of the virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus, to the embrace of celibacy as a clerical ideal, to the marginalizing of female devotion, to the recasting of piety as self-denial, particularly through penitential cults—came to a kind of defining climax at the end of the sixth century. It was then that all the philosophical, theological and ecclesiastical impulses curved back to Scripture, seeking an ultimate imprimatur for what by then was a firm cultural prejudice. It was then that the rails along which the church—and the Western imagination—would run were set.

Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604) was born an aristocrat and served as the prefect of the city of Rome. After his father’s death, he gave everything away and turned his palatial Roman home into a monastery, where he became a lowly monk. It was a time of plague, and indeed the previous pope, Pelagius II, had died of it. When the saintly Gregory was elected to succeed him, he at once emphasized penitential forms of worship as a way of warding off the disease. His pontificate marked a solidifying of discipline and thought, a time of reform and invention both. But it all occurred against the backdrop of the plague, a doom-laden circumstance in which the abjectly repentant Mary Magdalene, warding off the spiritual plague of damnation, could come into her own. With Gregory’s help, she did.

Known as Gregory the Great, he remains one of the most influential figures ever to serve as pope, and in a famous series of sermons on Mary Magdalene, given in Rome in about the year 591, he put the seal on what until then had been a common but unsanctioned reading of her story. With that, Mary’s conflicted image was, in the words of Susan Haskins, author of Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor, “finally settled...for nearly fourteen hundred years.”

It all went back to those Gospel texts. Cutting through the exegetes’ careful distinctions—the various Marys, the sinful women—that had made a bald combining of the figures difficult to sustain, Gregory, standing on his own authority, offered his decoding of the relevant Gospel texts. He established the context within which their meaning was measured from then on:

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. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?

There it was—the woman of the “alabaster jar” named by the pope himself as Mary of Magdala. He defined her:

It is clear, brothers, 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.

The address “brothers” is the clue. Through the Middle Ages and the Counter-Reformation, into the modern period and against the Enlightenment, monks and priests would read Gregory’s words, and through them they would read the Gospels’ texts themselves. Chivalrous knights, nuns establishing houses for unwed mothers, courtly lovers, desperate sinners, frustrated celibates and an endless succession of preachers would treat Gregory’s reading as literally the gospel truth. Holy Writ, having recast what had actually taken place in the lifetime of Jesus, was itself recast.

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