Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor
Who was Mary Magdalen? The deeper one reads into Susan Haskins' book, the less and less easy that apparently simple question becomes. To St Luke and ... Show synopsis Who was Mary Magdalen? The deeper one reads into Susan Haskins' book, the less and less easy that apparently simple question becomes. To St Luke and St John, she was simply the first witness to the resurrection, the women who told the other disciples the news, but very quickly she became confused with other figures in the Gospels - like Mary of Bethany, the reformed prostitute who wiped Christ's feet with her hair - and by the time of the Gnostic gospels she was seen as the archetypal penitent sinner, the beautiful weeping woman, even the Bride of Christ. To the middle Ages she was the greatest of all saints; to the Counter-Reformation a voluptuous tempress, the figure who combined religious respectability with the scent of suppressed sexuality and submissive womanhood; to the nineteenth century she was the patron of reformed prostitutes; to the twentieth, most dramatically perhaps, the liberator of Christ's sexuality in a film such as Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ. Susan Haskins brilliantly chips away at each of these ideas to see where they came from and how attached itself to Mary Magdalen, and how the complex picture of her which we have inherited came down to us. It reads at times like a cultural detective story, but it also contains moments of comedy, sometimes high (as in the "holy thefts" of the Middle Ages, when the Magdalen's relics were whisked backwards and forwards from France to Burgundy by monks in scenes that would not disgrace an Ealing comedy), and sometimes pathetic (the prostitutes' run at Beaucaire on the Magdalen's feast day). Haskins uses evidence from painting, literature, popular myth, and early Christian writing, much of it previously obscure and the fruit of nearly ten years of archival research, to unravel the web of meanings which underpins one of the most potent and pervasive icons in Christian history. Mary Magdalen can be seen as a prism through which we can view the culture and attitudes of each of the ages which has interpreted her, and interpret them through her, as the best works of cultural history allow us to do. Particularly, it allows us to understand a great deal about how and why the Church has viewed women as it has.