Style of Andrea Solario (Italian, ca. 1465-1524). ‘Mary Magdalen,’ ca. 1524. oil on panel. Walters Art Museum.

Mary Magdalene, also known as Mary of Magdala, was one of Jesus’s most famed disciples. She features in each of the four texts included in the Christian New Testament. She has caused much conflict in Christianity, with certain denominations disputing her relationship to Jesus as well as her existence.
The unchallenged facts about her life are predominantly found in the Gospels of Luke and Mark. These introduce her as a benefactor of Jesus’s healing, after a visit to him to cure her of a physical disorder. Mary was said to have gone on to witness 2 of the central Christian figure’s most prominent moments; the crucifixion and the resurrection. She is described as being present at the crucifixion alongside the Virgin Mary and a further apostle. Both Luke and Mark also write her as visiting the tomb alongside 2 unnamed women, who found it to be empty. The Gospel of John describes her as being visited by Jesus to tell the other apostles that he had ascended to be with God.

All other references to Mary Magdalene have been disputed by either further references within the New Testament or by prominent Christian figures since. She is often confused with Mary of Bethany, who was said by the Gospel of John to have anointed the feet of Jesus before cleaning them with her hair. Mary Magdalene is also confused with a further woman whose lust was pardoned by Jesus. She was said to have anointed his feet in a similar fashion, as found in the Gospel of Luke. It is important to remember that Jesus was believed to have died around 30 CE, whereas these gospels date to between 65-95 CE. This points to each of these figures being convoluted with one another.

Eastern Christianity clearly distinguishes these three women from each other. However, for many centuries Western Christianity did not. This was due to Pope St. Gregory I proclaiming them to be the singular character of a prostitute, and the religion following suit. The belief they are 3 individuals is now the argument of many leading theologists. The portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute was formally revoked by the Catholic Church in 1969. Despite this, the view is still incorrectly assumed by some.

The texts described as the ‘Gnostic Gospels’ differ slightly from the views of the New Testament. The Gospel of Philip describes Mary Magdalene as the “companion of Jesus”, which has led to the belief she was his wife. This is also recounted in the later Provençal legend that shows her escaping the Romans to Southern France following his execution. It is here where she was said to have birthed his child and thus continued the religious bloodline. This legend is believed to have become, in part, tangled with the 9th century CE Greek tale of Mary of Egypt, a reformed prostitute who spend several years in solitude. An 11th century CE story explained how her body was discovered in Provence and had been brought with her consent to the Abbey of Vézelay in Burgundy. The abbey was given papal recognition in 1058 CE for housing her body. This transformed the area into one of the most prominent pilgrimage centres in Europe in the Middle Ages. This legend has been more recently explored in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Another Gnostic text; the Gospel of Mary, was discovered near Akhmim, Egypt in 1896. The text explores the definitions of sin and what it means upon the soul.

Overall, Mary of Magdalene is a much disputed but central figure of all denominations of Christianity. However, despite these conflicts, her importance can be felt in each of the texts included within the New Testament. She is regarded as a saint by Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran branches of Christianity.

-Devon Allen
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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