Friday, July 22, 2011

The many faces of Mary Magdalene

“The Damsel of the Holy Grail” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874), Wikimedia Commons

Mary Magdalene is one of the most fascinating people in Christianity. Facts are few, and speculations run wild. Is she the greatest apostle, the sexiest saint, a repentant prostitute, the wife of Jesus or something even queerer? Consider some of her many faces today in honor of her feast day (July 22).

LGBT Christians may be able to relate to Mary Magdalene as someone who had a close relationship with Jesus, but got an undeserved bad reputation in the church for sexual sins. The church labeled her as a prostitute for centuries, but the Bible does NOT say she was a prostitute. Feminist theologians are reclaiming her as a role model in the struggle for equality.

The Bible portrays Mary Magdalene as the most important woman disciple of Jesus. He cast seven demons out of her and she became one of the women contributed their own resources to support Jesus (Luke 8:3). She traveled with him on his last journey to Jerusalem, watched his crucifixion, and was the first witness to his resurrection. All this, and only this, is in the gospels.

Mary Magdalene is also the author of her own gnostic gospel, the Gospel of Mary Magadelene. It survives in two 3rd-century Greek fragments and a longer 5th-century Coptic translation. Like several other apocryphal manuscripts, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene records her conflict with Peter over leadership in the Jesus movement. Peter challenges her right to speak for Jesus by asking, “Did he then speak secretly with a woman, in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?”

Medieval legends say that Mary Magdalene traveled to France with the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus as the Last Supper. This vision of Mary Magdalene appears in “The Damsel of the Holy Grail” by 19th-century English painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He presents Mary Magdalene as a mystical Christ figure, holding the Eucharistic chalice in one hand and raising the other in a gesture of benediction. The white dove of the Holy Spirit holds a pot of burning incense over her.

Mary Magdalene is an inspiration for those who seek progressive role models for church leadership today. For example, the Nativity Project recently commissioned three new paintings of Mary Magdalene by Vermont artist Janet McKenzie. They illustrate “an alternative to Peter’s hierarchical way of being church--that of the companion disciple modeled by Mary Magdalene--the one who worked side by side with Jesus,” according to

McKenzie and Nativity Project founder Barbara Marion conceived of the paintings as part of the project’s mission to celebrate women in the New Testament. “The One Sent” (pictured below) shows two spiritual teachers seated side by side: Jesus, sent to live among us as the Word made flesh, and Mary Magdalene, the first one sent to proclaim the Resurrection.

“The One Sent: Mary Magdalene with Jesus, the Christ” (from the triptych The Succession of Mary Magdalene) by Janet McKenzie

Penitent Magdalene,
by Titian (1565)
Wikimedia Commons

Mary Magdalene has a reputation as a prostitute, and some people love her for being the archetypal “bad girl.” As far back as the third century, church tradition has identified her with the unnamed “sinful woman” who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair and the woman whom Jesus saved from being stoned for adultery. Over the centuries many great artists painted her as a repentant prostitute. However, the Bible never says that Mary Magdalene was a sex worker. The Second Vatican Council officially removed the prostitute label in 1969.

Still, many people can relate to the idea of a sexually experienced disciple. If Mary Magdalene wasn’t a prostitute, perhaps she was the wife of Jesus. An unnamed “Beloved disciple” plays an important role in the Bible. A popular theory suggests that the Beloved Disciple was Mary Magdalene.

Some modern writers, notably Dan Brown in “The Da Vinci Code,” claim that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and fathered children with her. Thus Mary Magdalene herself becomes the metaphorical Holy Grail, the receptacle who carried on his bloodline by bearing one or more children with him.

Why stop there? Artist Peter Grahame has imagined the possibility of a bisexual Jesus in a love triangle with Mary Magdalene and John as the Beloved Disciple in his photo “Saying Goodbye to John and Mary.” (It can be viewed it in our previous post “Exploring Jesus the Bisexual.” Warning: nudity.) I also explore Jesus’ bisexual attractions in my “Jesus in Love” novels (although in my books Mary Magdalene does not return Jesus’ erotic interest).

Maybe Mary Magdalene herself was bisexual or lesbian. Painter Alex Donis imagines Mary Magdalene enjoying a woman-to-woman kiss in “Mary Magdalene and Virgen de Guadalupe.” (For more info, see our previous post Queer Lady of Guadalupe: Artists re-imagine an icon.)

“Mary Magdalene and Virgen de Guadalupe” (from “My Cathedral”) by Alex Donis

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene ends with Levi defending her against Peter: “If the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us.”

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Trudie said...

An extraordinary post. The one aspect of Mary Magdalene that I find most fascinating at the moment is the one suggested by Cynthia Bourgeault in her recent book, "The Meaning of Mary Magdalene". She discusses the possibility (which you also elaborate in "At the Cross") that Magdalene was "the woman with the alabaster jar" who anointed Jesus prior to his crucifixion. Although this is not explicit in scripture, and the confusion of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany is another way in which the patriarchal church has obfuscated her role as apostle, it feels completely "true" to me.

In any event, as Bourgeault's perspective and yours both beautifully express, this seems to be the time to reclaim for Christianity the wonderful role of anointing and healing which seems to have been Magdalene's special charisma. We emphatically NEED healing from the oppressive and abusive misogyny and erotophobia of the current system!

Evan said...

I appreciate the post and the beautiful artwork.

One note, however: Mary Magdalene was not the "author" of the gospel bearing her name as you suggest... or at any rate no serious scholar thinks so.

Kittredge Cherry said...

You’re right, Evan, that Mary Magdalene was not the “author” in the contemporary sense of the gospel ascribed to her. Scholars generally agree that none of the gospels were written down by eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry, but grew out of various oral traditions. I’ll work on a new wording for this post. Some (not so serious) scholars claim that Mary Magdalene was the author of the Gospel of John!

Thanks, Trudie, for highlighting Mary Magdalene’s role as healer. The Bible doesn’t name the woman with the alabaster jar, so it COULD have been Mary Magdalene.

Anonymous said...

Actually Mary Magdalene and also Mary the mother of Jesus had a bad girl reputation in ancient Jewish society as the New Testament shows. The one for hanging around with men as an unmarried women, the other for being pregnant without beeing married...