Dear Fellow Iconographers:
The next icon class that I teach online we are painting an Icon of Mary Magdalene. In order to make an accurate copy of the prototype, I am researching the relatively scant information available about her and want to share some of that with you here.
The questions to ask are: “Who was this woman, what does she represent to us today?” I rely heavily on Wikipedia for this article, and I include the following:
“Mary Magdalene is considered to be a saint by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches. In 2016 Pope Francis raised the level of liturgical memory on July 22 from memorial to feast, and for her to be referred as the “Apostle of the apostles”. Other Protestant churches honor her as a heroine of the faith. The Eastern Orthodox churches also commemorate her on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers, the Orthodox equivalent of one of the Western Three Marys traditions.” Wikipedia
Early Materials: Who Was Mary Magdalene
“The earliest materials that refer to Mary Magdalene appear from two very different sources: the canonical Gospels of the New Testament, and a group of fringe materials that have come to be known as the Gnostic Gospels, which were rejected by the Catholic Church.” The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, by Jean-Yves Leloup.
I share Leloup’s thoughts that the path of Mary Magdalene emphasizes inner preparation, introspection, and inner transformation. “As one who has been cleansed from sin, who remains with Christ throughout his death on the cross; and who first witnesses, understands, and believes in Christ’s resurrection, she represents a human being who is open and available to true “inner knowing” and can see in deeper, clearer ways through a unique spiritual connection to both earthly death and the Divine.”
“Mary Magdalene, sometimes called Mary of Magdala, or simply the Magdalene or the Madeleine, was a woman who, according to the four canonical gospels, traveled with Jesus as one of his followers and was a witness to his crucifixion and resurrection. She is mentioned by name twelve times in the canonical gospels, more than most of the apostles and more than any other woman in the gospels, other than Jesus’s family. Mary’s epithet Magdalene may mean that she came from the town of Magdala, a fishing town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee in Roman Judea.” Wikipedia
“Mary Magdalene’s epithet Magdalene (ἡ Μαγδαληνή; literally “the Magdalene”) most likely means that she came from Magdala, a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee that was primarily known in antiquity as a fishing town. Mary was, by far, the most common Jewish given name for females during the first century, so it was necessary for the authors of the gospels to call her Magdalene in order to distinguish her from the other women named Mary who followed Jesus. Although the Gospel of Mark, reputed by scholars to be the earliest surviving gospel, does not mention Mary Magdalene until Jesus’s crucifixion,]the Gospel of Luke 8:2–3 provides a brief summary of her role during his ministry: “Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” Wikipedia
There Is No Direct Evidence to Support The Notion of Her As a Prostitute.
“The portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute began in 591 when Pope Gregory I conflated Mary Magdalene, who was introduced in Luke 8:2, with Mary of Bethany (Luke 10:39) and the unnamed “sinful woman” who anointed Jesus’s feet in Luke 7:36–50. Pope Gregory’s Easter sermon resulted in a widespread belief that Mary Magdalene was a repentant prostitute or promiscuous woman. Then elaborate medieval legends from western Europe emerged which told exaggerated tales of Mary Magdalene’s wealth and beauty, as well as of her alleged journey to southern Gaul (modern-day France.) The identification of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and the unnamed “sinful woman” was still a major controversy in the years leading up to the Reformation, and some Protestant leaders rejected it. During the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church emphasized Mary Magdalene as a symbol of penance. In 1969, Pope Paul VI removed the identification of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and the “sinful woman” from the General Roman Calendar, but the view of her as a former prostitute has persisted in popular culture. …
Mary Magdalene Was Probably From a Wealthy Family
The Gospel of Luke 8:2–3 lists Mary Magdalene as one of the women who traveled with Jesus and helped support his ministry “out of their resources”, indicating that she was probably wealthy. The same passage also states that seven demons had been driven out of her, a statement which is repeated in Mark 16. In all the four canonical gospels, Mary Magdalene was a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus and, in the Synoptic Gospels, she was also present at his burial. All the four gospels identified her, either alone or as a member of a larger group of women which includes Jesus’s mother, as the first to witness the empty tomb, and, either alone or as a member of a group, as the first to witness Jesus’s resurrection… Because Mary is listed as one of the women who were supporting Jesus’s ministry financially, she must have been relatively wealthy. The places where she and the other women are mentioned throughout the gospels strongly indicate that they were vital to Jesus’s ministry and the fact that Mary Magdalene always appears first, whenever she is listed in the Synoptic Gospels as a member of a group of women, indicates that she was seen as the most important out of all of them. Carla Ricci notes that, in lists of the disciples, Mary Magdalene occupies a similar position among Jesus’s female followers as Simon Peter does among the male apostles.”Wikipedia
Mary Magdalene is the only woman besides Mother Mary who is mentioned by name in all four texts., and her name is always listed first when the presence of women is noted.
Healed By Jesus of Seven Demons
Jesus heals Mary by freeing her from seven demons. Mark 16:9 and Luke 8:2. She is mentioned also as one of the three, along with Mother Mary and John the apostle who wait at the foot of Christ’s cross at the Crucifixion. John 19:25
And importantly we know that she is the first to see Jesus resurrected from the tomb: John 20:11-18, Mark 16:9, Matthew 28:9-10. It is because of this that she is considered to be the apostle of the apostles.
Because Mary was the first to witness the Resurrection, she was considered by the Apostle John as the founder of Christianity. This was long before Saint Paul had his vision on the road to Damascus.
Women at the Tomb
According to Matthew 28:1–10, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” went to the tomb. An earthquake occurred and an angel dressed in white descended from Heaven and rolled aside the stone as the women were watching. The angel told them that Jesus had risen from the dead. Then the risen Jesus himself appeared to the women as they were leaving the tomb and told them to tell the other disciples that he would meet them in Galilee. According to Luke 24:1–12, a group of unnamed women went to the tomb and found the stone already rolled away, as in Mark. They went inside and saw two young men dressed in white who told them that Jesus had risen from the dead. Then they went and told the eleven remaining apostles, who dismissed their story as nonsense. In Luke’s account, Jesus never appears to the women, but instead makes his first appearance to Cleopas and an unnamed “disciple” on the road to Emmaus. Luke’s narrative also removes the injunction for the women to tell the disciples to return to Galilee and instead has Jesus tell the disciples not to return to Galilee, but rather to stay in the precincts of Jerusalem.
Another Account of Mary Magdalene and the Resurrection
Mary Magdalene’s role in the resurrection narrative is greatly increased in the account from the Gospel of John. According to John 20:1–10, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone when it was still dark and saw that the stone had already been rolled away. She did not see anyone, but immediately ran to tell Peter and the “beloved disciple”, who came with her to the tomb and confirmed that it was empty, but returned home without seeing the risen Jesus. According to John 20:11–18, Mary, now alone in the garden outside the tomb, saw two angels sitting where Jesus’s body had been. Then the risen Jesus approached her. She at first mistook him for the gardener, but, after she heard him say her name, she recognized him and cried out “Rabbouni!” of the grammar (negated present imperative: stop doing something already in progress) as well as Jesus’ challenge to Thomas a week later (see John 20:24–29). Jesus then sent her to tell the other apostles the good news of his resurrection. The Gospel of John therefore portrays Mary Magdalene as the first apostle, the apostle to the apostles.
The relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene shows us that Jesus did not reject women, but loved and welcomed women, sinners, and the weak.
The Relevance of Mary Magdalene for Christianity Today.
Another interesting book on the subject is Cynthia Bourgeault “The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, Discovering the Woman at the heart of Christianity”. In this book, Bourgeault re -examines both the Traditional and liturgical meanings of Mary’s role in the Gospels in the light of today’s hunger for personal spiritual understanding and meaning.
“ In the liturgy for the great vigil of Easter, one of the readings comes from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel:’I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’ Ezekiel 36:26 It seems to me that this promise captures the essence of Mary’s Magdalen’s healing vocation to contemporary Christianity…”
Legends and Creative Imaginings
There remain many stories, legends and creative imaginings surrounding the person of Mary of Magdala. I close this article with a lovely quote from the Leloup book:
“Each morning, according to another legend, a group of angels lifted Mary Magdalene above the summit of the cliffs where she could listed to the entire choir of angelic hosts, the divine sounds of original and continuing creation.”
Until next month, be blessed and do your best to help and be kind to others. 🙏❤️
Christine Simoneau Hales