Mary Magdalene: A Cultural History 
by Philip C. Almond.
Cambridge, 347 pp., £30, December 2022, 978 1 009 22169 6
Show More
Mary Magdalene: A Visual History 
by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona.
T&T Clark, 154 pp., £17.99, February 2023, 978 0 567 70574 7
Show More
Show More

Almostevery woman in the story of Jesus is called Mary. Sometimes the writers of the gospels got round this by adding a patronymic or a husband (Mary Salome, Mary of Cleophas, Mary Jacobi). The Virgin Mary has a stable identity as the mother of Jesus, but at least one document (attributed to Cyril of Jerusalem) bundled all the Marys into one. More commonly, the Marys have combined and then divided, only to fuse again with other, unnamed women in Jesus’s circle. They seem particularly attracted to Mary Magdalene, to whom they cluster like pins to a dressmaker’s magnet. Over the centuries, the struggle to answer the question ‘who is Mary Magdalene?’ hasn’t quite raged but seethed. It has also been the catalyst of far-fetched fantasy, including the miraculous sea voyages, conversions and resurrections recounted by the influential Golden Legend in the Middle Ages and culminating – at least so far – in the conspiracy theories of The Da Vinci Code and the bestselling soi-disant historical studies that inspired them.

Philip Almond surveys the torrent of claims and counterclaims in theological and popular literature across two millennia and sets out to show that Mary Magdalene has always represented ‘the sinner we should aspire not to be and the saint we should desire to become’. He mostly refrains from condemnation, or even approval, of what he finds, though he struggles to keep his cool when unpicking the arcana of the Prieuré de Sion, which proposes that the Holy Grail is Mary Magdalene’s womb, and that her child with Jesus connects the kings of France to the Royal House of David.

Mary Magdalene appears by name in the gospels as a woman possessed by seven devils, which are driven out by Jesus. Pope Gregory the Great identified them as the seven deadly sins and conflated this Mary with the unnamed woman who, in the same gospel (Luke 7), enters the house where Jesus is dining, bathes his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair and then anoints them with precious oils. Simon the Pharisee reproves Jesus for allowing her to touch him: ‘She is a sinner,’ he says. In response, Jesus absolves her: ‘Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much.’ These many sins have long been assumed to be sexual, and the jar from which the woman pours her healing balm became Mary Magdalene’s attribute, standing metonymically for the sinner-saint’s body in thousands of images as artists imagined its bejewelled, elaborate and luxurious exterior, concealing delicious and fragrant liquor.

In the other gospels Jesus is also anointed by a woman who prostrates herself to weep over his feet, but in the versions of the story in Matthew 26 and Mark 14 she pours the costly ointment on his head. The disciples object, saying it would have been better to give the money to the poor, and are reprimanded by Jesus. This woman has long been identified as Mary of Bethany (Pasolini brilliantly cast Natalia Ginzburg as Mary of Bethany in his Gospel According to St Matthew: she smiles broadly as she lavishes the oil on his hair). She sits at Jesus’s feet to listen to his words, while her sister, Martha, prepares the meal. When Martha remonstrates with Mary, Jesus tells her (in Luke 10) that Mary has taken ‘the better part’. Because her gesture resembles that of the sinful woman in Luke 7, and because Jesus springs to defend her, the importance of this conflated Mary grew, especially among women.

By far the most significant part Mary Magdalene plays in the story of salvation is after the crucifixion, when she stands at the foot of the cross with the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist, and then goes to the tomb with embalming oils to care for Jesus’s body. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke there are several women involved, and they find the tomb empty except for an angel (sometimes two), with ‘a face like lightning’, who tells them: ‘He is risen.’ John describes Mary Magdalene going on her own, and meeting someone she mistakes for the gardener. When he reveals himself to be Jesus, she becomes the first witness to the resurrection. He says to her: ‘Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father,’ or, in some versions: ‘Do not cling to me.’ These mysterious words invert the earlier, physical intimacies, when she clung to his feet, and also contradict the encounter with Thomas that takes place soon afterwards, when Jesus invites him to probe the wound in his side: a bodily proof, a relic in the making.

In John, the resurrected Christ tells Mary Magdalene to spread the news to the other disciples. On this scriptural basis, Ernest Renan asked in La Vie de Jésus (1863), an account that caused outrage in its day: ‘Did enthusiasm, always credulous, create afterwards the group of narratives by which it was sought to establish faith in the resurrection? … Let us say, however, that the strong imagination of Mary Magdalene played an important part in this circumstance.’ This perspective has not prevailed; indeed, as recently as 2013, Pope Francis declared Mary Magdalene the Apostolorum Apostola, the apostle of apostles, emphasising her miraculous repentance: ‘Sometimes in our lives, tears are the lenses we need to see Jesus.’

The cult of Mary Magdalene began to grow at the end of the sixth century, after Pope Gregory pioneered the ‘single’ Mary, unifying all the sources and smoothing discrepancies (he was a great organiser: the calendar was one of his feats). In the tenth century, someone in the circle of Odo, the Benedictine abbot of Cluny, began to combine the scriptural material with apocrypha and local legends about the saint to create a tripartite Vita (vita evangelica, vita eremetica and vita apostolica), the last focusing on Mary Magdalene bringing the news of Christ’s resurrection to the disciples and evangelising as far afield as France.

The multiplying Marys don’t stop there. Jacopus de Voragine, the Dominican author of the Golden Legend, couldn’t resist a good story and repeats the popular conjecture that Mary Magdalene is the bride at the wedding feast of Cana, where the Virgin Mary urges Jesus to help when the wine runs out, leading to his first public miracle. Jacopus casts John the (future) Evangelist as the bridegroom and imagines that the wedding was called off because both parties decided instead to follow Jesus. Various responses are attributed to Mary Magdalene: as jilted bride, indignant at having been deprived of a spouse, she gives herself up to voluptuousness. ‘And there are those who allege,’ Jacopus writes, ‘that Christ honoured John with special evidence of his affection because he had taken him away from the aforesaid pleasures.’ But he then retracts his story (a true gossip having it both ways), adding: ‘These tales are to be considered false and frivolous.’ The story stuck all the same, chiefly through the deep influence Jacopus had on artists: the wedding at Cana was a popular subject for woodcuts, engravings and metalwork for portable altars. Jacopus’s gifts as a storyteller were to overlook discrepancy, embrace implausibility (a sign of divine energy) and compress material into an easy to remember series of picture-scenes.

The later life of Mary Magdalene inspired contradictory and multiple biographies. According to one, she moves to Ephesus with the Virgin Mary and John, where she helps him write the first twenty chapters of his gospel. She dies and is buried there; some accounts claim her tomb stood at the entrance to the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, which also appears in the Quran. In Not Dead but Sleeping, Anna Della Subin reflects on this widespread myth and the role of the sleepers’ dog, often illustrated in Arabic manuscripts.

Jacopus recounts the legend of Mary Magdalene’s body, said to have been dug up and taken from Ephesus to Constantinople, from where it was stolen during the Fourth Crusade. It was then carried to Vézelay, where it became the centrepiece of a major pilgrimage. He also gives the countervailing tradition, that Mary Magdalene and her companions were cast out of Jerusalem and put to sea in a rudderless boat with no sail. After drifting westwards across the Mediterranean, the holy company lands on the coast near Marseille where Mary Magdalene preaches the gospel, works many miracles and converts the local ruler and his wife. After several years, she retires to a cave at the top of the great massif of St-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume – which remains a site of pilgrimage. At the summit, the shrine is dedicated to St Pilon (St Pestle), another reminder of the importance of aromatic spices, oils and balm to her cult. In the South of France, a different and far more festive popular cult sprang up around the figure of her companion Sarah, who is portrayed as a magical Black Virgin; she is the patron saint of the Gitans, or Gypsies, of this area and beyond.

Mary Magdalene’s posthumous fame centred on her relics, which were as multiple as her jostling identities. Relics lend specificity and sanctity to a place: contact with the material body, no matter how distant in time, sustains the aura. They didn’t have to be body parts, though Catholicism liked to enshrine these in exquisite reliquaries: objects or articles of clothing would suffice (the tunic Mary wore at the annunciation is preserved at Chartres). In 1267, Charles II, count of Provence, dug up the bones in Vézelay that local tradition held were Mary Magdalene’s and took the left foot to St-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume; thirteen years later he dug them up again and this time found a piece of ‘living skin’ – said to be the place where Jesus touched her with his index finger after the resurrection. A palm or fennel plant was growing from her tongue: a sign of her eloquence in preaching.

It is hard to overstate the importance of relics in the religious cults of the Middle Ages. When Luther pinned his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church on All Saints’ Eve 1517, more than five thousand relics, Almond tells us, were on display inside: 56 of the Virgin Mary and only two fewer of Mary Magdalene. Many years ago, I visited Geel in Belgium, a medieval town that has long been an open asylum for the mentally disturbed; its patron and protector is Saint Dymphna, who was murdered by her father after she refused to ‘marry’ him. I went on Saint Dymphna’s feast day (30 May); a large congregation filed up to kiss a small fragment of bone in a glass case. The mood was hushed and intense; the votaries clearly in earnest and filled with hope and trust. After the ceremony, I went to the sacristy to talk to the young celebrant of the mass. He came hurrying in and as he did so tossed the relic on the table. It was at best a casual gesture, but seemed a repudiation, as if he were saying: ‘Those silly old women!’ After the Reformation the treasuries of Catholic churches were sifted: the Holy Lance, once one of the most sacred objects in the world, over which much blood was spilled, is now in the Imperial Treasury of the Hofburg in Vienna and a tooth of Mary Magdalene, still in its gorgeous crystal and gilded metal reliquary, is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Diane Apostolos-Cappadona’s​ study of Mary Magdalene began as an art catalogue and its origin shows: the main chronological history is reprised in a second section with short entries on the motifs associated with her: sinner/seductress, penitent, anointer etc. It’s a rich pudding stuffed with 65 colour reproductions, the findings and images often recherché and fascinating. A painting of c.1520 by an unidentified artist known only as the Master of the Magdalen Legend shows Mary Magdalene preaching in a forest in the South of France: she stands in a plein air pulpit improvised from tree branches. Another artist, the Master of the Female Half-Lengths, also working in the early 16th century, created a series of portraits of Mary Magdalene as a contemporary great lady, sitting reading or playing the lute (examples by the same artist showing her with pen, ink, ruler, sand caster and blotter – surely some of the earliest depictions of a woman writing – are sadly not included). The striking Salon group portrait by Jean Béraud, La Madeleine chez le Pharisien (1891), updates the scene in the house of the Pharisees – like grands bourgeois at a Rotarian banquet, the guests look on startled as Mary Magdalene lies at the feet of Jesus, a poule de luxe in a haze of muslin. Béraud’s Christ is a portrait of none other than Ernest Renan, Apostolos-Cappadona writes. She shows a keen interest in depictions of Mary Magdalene by women artists, but they rarely diverge from conventional iconography (indeed Artemisia Gentileschi surpasses her male counterparts in swooning ecstasy). This changes only in the present day: Kiki Smith’s hirsute Mary Magdalene has one ankle fettered, as if hobbled by the weight of her own legend.

More intriguing is Apostolos-Cappadona’s consideration of Eastern Orthodoxy, which never adopted the single Magdalene, kept most of the Marys distinct and venerated the Myrrhophores, or balm-bearers, as the three women at the tomb are known. She enjoys the byways of Russian lore, relating that Mary Magdalene, in Rome on her apostolic mission, was invited to a banquet by the emperor Tiberius, where she denounced Pontius Pilate and held up an egg as a symbol of new life. Tiberius said he would believe her only if the egg turned red – which it did, miraculously. This curious piece of Easter lore is illustrated by a 19th-century icon by Sergei Ivanov. In a grisly footnote, Apostolos-Cappadona describes the afterlife of Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who became a nun after the assassination in 1905 of her husband, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, founding convents, hospitals and schools under the protection of Martha and Mary before her own assassination in 1918. In preparation for her canonisation in 1981, the Synod of Bishops ordered that Elizabeth’s body be disinterred from the crypt of the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem. It was said to be unusually well preserved. ‘The archimandrite removed the right hand … and placed it in a reliquary.’

Reading this made me feel queasy, and I remembered that around the time of her sanctification, a contact from the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem had taken me to a service in that very church, an incandescent oriental confection with seven golden onion domes topped with crosses. A nunnery had been established there in the 1930s; the community, still at least thirty strong, all in black with stiff square wimples and thick veils, came out and sat in the stalls before the iconostasis; they were followed by an ancient reverend mother, parchment pale, gaunt and swathed, who took her throne on one side. It was a spectral experience. We waited outside afterwards because my companion had a friend among the nuns: a young woman soon ran out, greeted him excitedly and begged him for news of the outside world. He told me later that the nuns took in orphans. It was still common in those days to see processions of children in the streets of Jerusalem, especially on great feast days, singing hymns as members of whatever Christian sect had offered them protection and a way to survive.

Under the aegis of Mary Magdalene, any number of institutions have offered such a refuge to girls and women. The notorious Magdalene Laundries, which operated not only in Ireland but across Europe, were modelled on medieval precedents. Founded in the 18th century, they offered an alternative to life on the game but became something far more sinister. Almond reviews the sombre history of efforts to redeem fallen women, reading widely across little-known (at least to me) legal and theological sources, such as the 18th-century Presbyterian theologian Nathaniel Lardner, who argued that Mary Magdalene had not been possessed by evil spirits but was mentally disturbed. ‘She was not bad,’ Almond summarises his argument, ‘but ill.’

What should we make​ of all this attention, inventiveness, intellectual struggle and piety? In Figuring the Sacred, Paul Ricoeur provides a generous answer: through Mary Magdalene’s Lives, ‘new possibilities of being in the world are opened up within everyday reality … and in this way everyday reality is metamorphosed by means of what we would call the imaginative variations that literature works on the real.’ A mythic cluster such as that around Mary Magdalene is a living organism, but it obeys two cognitive dynamics. The first is a form of narrative pareidolia, seeing connections between elements and discerning a pattern – often a plot – that isn’t there. According to Vasari, Botticelli once told Leonardo da Vinci that ‘by merely throwing a sponge full of diverse colours at a wall, it left a stain … where a fine landscape was seen.’ This approach comes rather unexpectedly from such a delicate observer of grace and beauty as Botticelli, but Leonardo himself, more inclined to phantasy, also practised it, and wrote in his Treatise on Painting, ‘look at walls splashed with a number of stains … you can see there various battles, and lively postures of strange figures, expressions on faces, costumes and an infinite number of things, which you can reduce to good integrated form.’ Readers of the gospels practised this method of divining ‘integrated form’ from the bewildering scatter of Marys in the four books.

The second cognitive tendency evident in the Mary Magdalene legends is recapitulation: reproducing models across time, one blurred, off-register copy after another, in the same way that incidents in Jesus’s life fulfil, the gospels tell us, prophecies in the Old Testament. Mary Magdalene’s story follows the legend of Mary of Egypt, a fourth-century desert mother who, according to Sophronius, was a prostitute who worked her passage from Alexandria to Jerusalem by sleeping with the pilgrims on a boat heading for the holy places. When she tried to enter the Holy Sepulchre, a divine force impelled her backwards. She repented of her way of life, gave up all her finery and her jewels and spent the last three decades of her life in the desert, naked, weeping, fed only by angels who lifted her up in ecstasy at the eight canonical hours. The angels also made sure to cover her body in a mantle of her own hair. Many elements of this story were borrowed for the legends that formed around Mary Magdalene in France, with the rocky landscape of the Massif de la Sainte-Baume standing in for the desert. Artists made the most of the opportunities the story gave them to paint beautiful fallen women, surrounded by discarded jewels and brocades and nude except for cascades of red-gold hair. A few resisted the temptation to titillate: Donatello’s scarecrow Mary Magdalene, emaciated and haggard, may be clothed in animal skins like John the Baptist and is an image of anguish, self-abnegation and loss. By contrast, when a visitor to Titian’s studio commented on his version of the penitent saint, all rosy and dewy and plump, Titian ‘answered laughing that he had painted her on the first day … before she began fasting, in order to be able to paint her as a penitent indeed, but also as lovely as he could’.

The anecdote – though not entirely believable – captures the doublethink not only of opportunistic painters, but of Magdalene cultists in general. Devotees often exult in the stripping of her beauty and her wealth; she is imagined as a woman of substance, who owned property in Magdala (hence her name), and when she repents and gives all this up, her reduction becomes the source of great satisfaction to the worthy men who love her in spite of – or because of – their general suspicion of and contempt for women. She conforms to the harlot figure of the Old Testament, the Whore of Babylon and faithless Israel wantoning with false gods and, at the very beginning, Eve. Many commentators saw the analogies and, because Mary Magdalene repented and was embraced by Jesus, they cast her as a Second Eve, who reverses the curse of the first. The fourth-century theologian Ambrose of Milan argued that it was fitting that ‘she who first had brought the message of sin to man, should first bring the message of the grace of the Lord.’

The narrative pareidolia and recapitulation that fuelled the Magdalene legends created a third dynamic. In order to experience the reality of the Bible story of redemption, it became important to establish a sacred map of connections across time: the stories of Mary Magdalene’s wanderings to Rome, to Ephesus, to Marseille, followed by the wide diaspora of her relics, ties the believer to the events that she was part of. Infusing stories into places – forging lieux de mémoire – is a way of hallowing a locality, of making it special and making it your own. Does it matter if the story isn’t true? The Reformers dealt with the proliferation of fantastic tales and theories by demanding a return to ‘sola scriptura’. The Enlightenment set out to suppress ignorance and superstition, and a similar ardour drives the Salafist and Wahhabi attacks on popular sites of pilgrimage, which are often based on the association of certain objects and relics. Yet these efforts to cleanse the record have brought about even more irrational consequences: fundamentalist readings of scripture have justified accusations of witchcraft, death to infidels, occupation and destruction.

The human longing to map places according to hopes and fears, to organise time retrospectively to be meaningfully structured rather than random noise, can be confronted and adapted for happier ends. Different, figural ways of interpretation can help readers to see through the narrative surface to the significance beneath; these approaches used to be widespread, mainly as a legacy of religious studies, but have now weakened almost to vanishing point.

In the case of Mary Magdalene and her anointings, the commentators, writers and hagiographers quoted in these studies take her actions at face value. But might they be put to the test? In his recent memoir, Journeys of the Mind, Peter Brown writes that, when researching the medieval practice of ducking, in which a suspected witch was thrown into a body of water and pronounced innocent if she sank to the bottom, he threw himself fully clothed into various municipal pools. Since anyone thrown into water fully dressed will usually sink, Brown concluded that ducking may not have been as merciless as it sounds. Survival depended on the accused being pulled out in time to be vindicated.

Could something similar be attempted in the case of Mary Magdalene? Could tears be produced in such abundance that they could wash dusty feet? Could hair dry them? Did she spread a towel beneath Jesus’s feet before she poured the oil? It sounds as though I am being absurdly literal-minded, a latter-day Calvin scoffing at relics, but I want to suggest that her actions have been taken too literally, and scripture read as a narrative of events instead of a symbolic, allegorical or even metaphysical (anagogical) series of signs. When Mary Magdalene clings to Jesus and prostrates herself, she’s adopting the formal position of a suppliant, imploring mercy, forgiveness, shelter and protection, and Jesus’s response is that of a patron accepting a protégée. The erotic frisson of these scenes has masked their symbolic meaning: she may be recognising Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, just as she plays that part after his death. Ancient, superseded, figural ways of reading can increase our ‘epistemic vigilance’, to use Terence Cave’s phrase, and sharpen our ability to see past the assumptions these stories have shaped. We can revel in the wild fruits of our forerunners’ stories and yet stay alert to the designs they have on us.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 46 No. 5 · 7 March 2024

Marina Warner notes that Pope Francis ‘declared Mary Magdalene the Apostolorum Apostola, the apostle of apostles’, as recently as 2013 (LRB, 22 February). The title was possibly first used of Mary Magdalene by Rabanus Maurus, the archbishop of Mainz (c.780-856), was current in the 12th century and used by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th. Use of the title, reflecting her role as the first witness of the Resurrection, who then told the apostles of its occurrence, has tended to come and go. But it is reflected visually in a handful of medieval manuscripts. A lovely example occurs in the Queen Mary Psalter (made in the 14th century and now in the British Library). Mary Magdalene’s life is summarised in six line and wash drawings. In the fourth of them, she is shown in a preacher’s pose while conveying the news to the disciples, standing firm but advancing one foot, and with a didactic gesture. Such illustrations are rare not least because of St Paul’s injunctions against women preaching, a view that persisted down the centuries. Yet in the much earlier, non-canonical, possibly Gnostic Gospel of Mary, she instructs the other apostles and holds her ground against those who doubt her because of her gender.

Jane M. Card
Harwell, Oxfordshire

Vol. 46 No. 6 · 21 March 2024

Marina Warner writes about several portraits of Mary Magdalene with writing instruments in hand by a French artist from the early 16th century, the Master of the Female Half-Lengths, ‘surely some of the earliest depictions of a woman writing’ (LRB, 22 February). Dating from more than five hundred years before that, on the Lakshmana temple in Khajuraho in central India, there is a sculpture of a woman seen from behind in the act of writing a letter, generally identified as an Apsara, or celestial nymph. And from first-century Pompeii, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, there is a fresco of a woman with a wax tablet and stylus, popularly known as ‘Sappho’.

Peter Bisschop
Leiden University

Jane M. Card writes that illustrations of Mary Magdalene preaching are ‘rare not least because of St Paul’s injunctions against women preaching’ (Letters, 7 March). In fact the injunctions come from the later Church. Paul commends to the Romans ‘our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae’ (Romans 16:1), and includes almost as many women as men among his personal greetings. For Paul it was normal for women to ‘prophesy’ and pray. He thought they should keep their heads covered when doing so (I Corinthians 11:5). The contradiction in the same epistle – ‘Let your women keep silence in the churches’ (I Corinthians 14:34) – is a later interpolation designed to deny female participation.

Robert Johnstone
Richmond, Surrey

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences