Mary Magdalene

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(1st century).

This follower of Christ, ‘out of whom he had cast seven devils’, who stood by his cross, went to anoint his body at the tomb, and to whom the risen Christ appeared on Easter Sunday morning, has often, but not universally in the West, been identified both with Mary the sister of Martha of Bethany and with the woman who was a sinner, who anointed Christ's feet in the house of Simon (Luke 7: 37). This identification, propounded by Gregory the Great, but now implicitly rejected by the Roman Missal, was accepted in the traditional cult of Mary Magdalene and by the artists who depicted her. Nowadays however she is considered more important for her role in telling the Apostles about Christ's Resurrection.

Legend in both East and West added apocryphal details to the simple data of the Gospels. In the East she was said to have gone to Ephesus with the Blessed Virgin and John the Apostle (of whom a later tradition made her the rejected fiancée when Christ called him); there she died and was buried; there the English Willibald saw her supposed tomb in the 8th century. In the West Vézelay claimed her relics from the 11th century, and a legend arose that she, her brother Lazarus, and her sister Martha had all evangelized Provence, where Mary lived as a hermit in the Maritime Alps before dying at Saint Maximin. In spite of immense popular support for this legend it is rejected by practically all modern scholars.

Her feast has been kept in the West since the 8th century. In art Mary Magdalene is usually represented with the emblem of a pot of ointment, or is depicted in Gospel scenes of the Passion and Resurrection. Her popularity in England is reflected in the 187 ancient dedications of churches and in her universal appearance in medieval calendars. Both Oxford and Cambridge have a College dedicated to her. A late Middle English Play of Mary Magdalene survives, which presents her both in Palestine and in Provence. Mary Magdalene is patron both of repentant sinners and of the contemplative life; this, together with her close association with Christ, explains her immense popularity through the ages. Feast: 22 July; translation, especially in the East, 4 May.

AA.SS. Iul. V (1727), 187–225;M. J. Lagrange, ‘Jésus, a-t-il été oint plusieurs fois et par plusieurs femmes?’, Revue Biblique, ix (1912), 504–32; H. M. Garth, Saint Mary Magdalene in Medieval Literature (1950);V. Saxer, Le Culte de Marie Madeleine en Occident des origines à la fin du moyen-âge (1959) and Le dossier vézelien de Marie Madeleine (1975);S. Haskins, Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor (1993).

Subjects: Christianity.

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