Composite Magdalene


Magdalene images
Composite Magdalene

The popularity of a fallen woman

the composite Magdalene: Mary of Magdala in the imagination of the church: merger of three (or even four) women
The images associated with these women are on a separate page, you can jump to clicking on the "madeleines" klik om Magdalena te zien

biblical data

About the true or real Mary Magdalene we know nothing, except that the Gospels tell us that she (1) followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem (after her 'liberation experience': Luke 8: 2); (2) that she remained with him to the very last and thus was present at the Crucifixion, the Deposition from the Cross and the Entombment ; (3) that her name comes first in all the Gospels when it comes to witnesses to the Resurrection. klik om Magdalena te zienShe is the the apostle of the apostles.
A supposed past as a prostitute is not mentioned, neither is the anointment with oil connected with her name. Her origin and later life remain in limbo. Very old traditions point to Ephesus for her grave. Why then had 'La Madeleine' become the prototype of the penitent sinner; Why is she so often depicted in a cave, naked, and with extremely long hair; What about that omnipresent bottle of anointing oil (or is it perfume?) ? The answer is simple: The image of Mary Magdalene in the church's tradition is a complex idea, literally, a composite portrait. She is the merger of three biblical women, afterwards supplemented with an extra-biblical hermit.

The three biblical women are:

1. Mary Magdalene (= or Magdala, El Mejdel, a prosperous town on the Sea of ​​Galilee), legendary [the question is: before or after the  Legend started to spread] because of the loose manners that are supposed to have been common there. Magdala was destroyed by the Romans in 75 CE. Mary Magdalene is mentioned as one of the women who followed Jesus and stuck to him, after he had liberated her from 'seven devils'. (Luke 8, 2). She is put down extremely lifelike by John (the gospel author) when he depicts her roaming in the grave yard on Easter morning before dawn passionately seeking for 'her lord ', weeping. When she finds him, she mistakes him for the gardener (what a wonderful 'error') , but - after Jesus calls her by her name - she throws her arms around his neck (or falls at his feet, just as you like), whereupon Jesus utters the famous words: Noli me tangere (but in Aramaic of course, or Greek, meaning either: Do not hold me or do not touch me. Which translation is to be preferred is still discussed by scholars): a 'stock image' at Easter. Also important: Jesus commands Mary to go the apostles and tell them the Gospel. She is the first and the only 'Preacher' ordained by Christ himself. Apostola apostolorum. This story always plays a (legitimizing) role when women also try to say something in the male conversation that Church history is.


klik om Magdalena te zien

2. An anonymous 'sinner' who, barging in at a posh dinner at Simon-the-Pharisee's place, kissed Jesus' feet, then dried them with her hair, and anointed them. Luke tells the story in Chapter 7; He uses the term "sinner." In the discussion she evokes - in that venerable company of men - Jesus defends her against the criticism of the host. That she was a prostitute, is not said in so many words, but the term "sinner" and her loose hair is suggestive. After a parable about forgiveness of sins, Jesus speaks the famous words: Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.(v 47). Ominous words as well because often mis-interpreted: of course Jesus does not refer to her practice as a prostitute because prostitution has nothing to do with love. A few verses later the name of Mary Magdalene is mentioned (Luke 8,2) as one of the women who followed Jesus after Jesus had liberated her from 'seven devils'. The identification of the first two women is at hand. Both the Eastern and Western Church have accomplished this.

3. Mary of Bethany (who "sat at the feet of Rabbi Jesus" to learn), the sister of Lazarus and Martha. She  anoints his feet in the Gospel of John (Chapter 12), very similar to the sinner in Luke 7, also wiping his feet with her hair. An identification of woman 2 with woman 3 (and through woman 2 also with woman 1) is impossible, if we take seriously the varying chronology and geography of the Gospels, but literary it is of course very enticing. The Eastern Church however has never done it. Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala are two different female Saints.
By contrast, in the Western Church, in a famous sermon on Mary Magdalene Gregory the Great has accomplished this identification as thoroughly as possible (late 6th century). Only in the 16th century (Humanism and Reformation) the different Mary's were - not without a lot of fuzz - disassembled. The French theologian/philosopher/philologist Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples wrote a highly controversial essay: De Maria Magdalena et triduo Christi disceptatio, 1517. It remained the talk of the town well into 1519 but was finally condemned as heretic by the Paris theologians of the Sorbonne. It did not end the artistic and rhetoric representation of the 'composite Magdalen, the merger Mary'. On the contrary: After the Council of Trent, the moral-preaching about sexuality began once more to exploit the possibilities of the Penitent Magdalene.

"With the perfume that once shamefully made her body smell so sweetly, she now anointed the feet of the Lord; her eyes once coveting worldly affairs were now filled with tears of penance; with the hair that previously served to enhance her attractiveness, she now dried her tears; Her lips previously only pronouncing proud words, now humbly kissed the feet of the Lord. "(Gregory the Great on Mary Magdalene, sermon XXXIII, own paraphrase/translation, section in which he links the 7 devils to the 7 mortal sins)klik om Magdalena te zien

The result was that the pious Mary (who had chosen the 'better part', sitting at Jesus' feet) now has a "past", and not a positive one. The seven evil spirits (demons, devils) were  equated with the seven deadly sins. The "old" Mary was a rich, desirable, lustful, proud and haughty woman. Some paintings (like those of Caravaggio) paint scenes from the period in which her ​​sister Martha admonishes her for lookinginto the mirror too often.








The famous French historian Georges Duby does not hesitate to call the merging of these three female figures "a stroke of genius of the Latin Fathers". The portrait of the (imaginary) woman which emerges is so incredibly rich that she has become one of the most influential female individuals of European history. A "Complement" to the always chaste virgin-mother Mary, this complex person expresses/visualises a large part of the Churchs view on women, the female.

Penitent sinner

Mary Magdalene (as such a 'composite woman') is perfectly fit as an object lesson on sexuality and sin. She evokes the "forbidden" and "averts" it at the same time. There are tears, there is her hair, there's the smell of the precious spikenard. She is completely physical, she is 100% woman. Her "past" as a prostitute (officially to be condemned), combined with her ​​great love for Jesus made her very exciting. She became a genre piece entitled: the penitent Magdalene. From Titian onwards she is depicted with a languishing-penitent upward gaze, almost (or completely) bare chest and breast. She often sits in a cave, usually with a vanitas symbol: at least a skull.klik om Magdalena te zien
Add to this the praise and protective words of Jesus towards the anonymous sinner that "she loved so much" and to Mary of Bethany "that her anointing act would be mentioned wherever the gospel of Christ would be proclaimed, because she alone understood the goal of his mission"; and that she never abandoned, or betrayed Jesus at his Passion and was the first to recognize him at Easter (becoming the apostolorum apostola) and you understand why Georges Duby called this merging "a stroke of genius". This duality makes Mary a remarkable woman and also opens the gates for much ambiguity. With her the "male Church" tried to classify the seductive woman and the sexual impulse, at the same time channeling "sensuality": it was a hindrance, but to be overcome if repented. Of course visual artists enjoy painting or sculpting Mary Magdalene. Of course they paint her as an example of a fallen woman, but as so many paintings of evil the effects are often counterproductive. Many penitent Magdalenes are painted or sculpted so tempting, that looking at them arouses the spectators rather than admonishing them to repent. Even the worship of the ever chaste virgin Mary could not escape this ambiguity, but this set aside.

Mary of Egypt

At this point, a fourth woman enters the scene and completes the imagery of Mary Magdalene: the ascetic Mary of Egypt (a legend known since the 7thklik om Magdalena te zien century). This lady, a hermit, a recluse spent 30 years in the desert in a cave. She had been a prostitute (ah, there she is!) and once decided to go to Jerusalem (by boat) paying the fare with her body. She wanted to participate in the Celebrations of the Holy Week But, but when she wanted to enter the Church (of the Holy Sepulchre with the Holy Cross) something stopped her, literally. Whatever she tried, she did not get inside..  This is how she tells it herself (legenda aurea): "But when I trod on the doorstep which everyone passed, I was stopped by some force which prevented by entering. Meanwhile I was brushed aside by the crowd and found myself standing alone in the porch. Thinking that this had happened because of my woman's weakness, I again began to work my way into the crowd, trying to elbow myself forward. But in vain I struggled. Again my feet trod on the doorstep over which others were entering the church without encountering any obstacle. I alone seemed to remain unaccepted by the church. It was as if there was a detachment of soldiers standing there to oppose my entrance. Once again I was excluded by the same mighty force and again I stood in the porch. Having repeated my attempt three or four times, at last I felt exhausted and had no more strength to push and to be pushed, so I went aside and stood in a corner of the porch. And only then with great difficulty it began to dawn on me, and I began to understand the reason why I was prevented from being admitted to see the life-giving Cross. The word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart and revealed to me that it was my unclean life which barred the entrance to me. I began to weep and lament and beat my breast, and to sigh from the depths of my heart. And so I stood weeping when I saw above me the ikon of the most holy Mother of God.. (the entire story, see: links)

She understood that she had to repent and do penance, and thanks to the intercession of Mary the mother of God, she finally entered the Church. She was ordered to cross the river Jordan, with three loaves, and spent the next 30 years of her life feeding on herbs etc.. So she overcame the desires of her beautiful but sinful body, until there was no beauty left: she was blackened exposed to the merciless desert sun. No one knew of its existence. When Father Zosimus was commissioned to cross the Jordan to found a Monastery, he met her. To cover her nakedness, he gave her his cloak. And when they had prayed, he looked adoringly how she levitated. She asked for "Holy Communio". On Maundy Thursday, he returned and she "communicated". A year later he returned, and found her deceased, but not destroyed. He had to bury her, but had no shovel or spade with him. A lion appeared and dug her grave with his claws.

Mary Magdalene, the merger of four women, is now set to start her career. The one thing remaining odd though is the starting point: not Palestine, not Ephesus, not the Desert, but the south of France, in the Provence, near Marseille. There one points to a cave in the mountainside, where Mary is supposed to have spent the last part of her life and where shedied: the Massif de la Sainte-Baume ("baume" = provencal for "cave" !). How did she get there (according to previous legends she died near Ephesus and her remains were transferred to Constantinople) ?... And what are some of her bones doing in Vézélay in Burgundy ?

Mary, the "Marseillaiseklik om Magdalena te zien"

Boundless is the medieval legendary imagination. One day Mary - says the Legenda Aurea - together with her brother (Lazarus) and her sister (Martha), and accompanied by a Roman youth Maximinus [in other versions: Maximinus is one of the 72 disciples (Acts, ch. 1) and also Sidonius, another of the 72, is present], was put on a small boat, which was set afloat at sea by some 'unbelievers' (i.e.: to get drowned). This boat then miraculously (without sail and rudder!) floats throughout the Mediterranean Sea and finally was stranded in Southern France, near Marseille: at Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (indeed the spot of the religious festival of Roma gypsies) the illustrious company set foot ashore. Mary evangelises the residents of the neighboring city, Marseille. And after having overcome the opposition of the Prince and Princess of that town (among others by killing a dragon, and prophesying the birth of a child), Marseille converted and chose Lazarus as its first bishop (St. Lazaire). Maximinus became bishop of Aix-en-Provence (St. Maximin). Martha converted het massief van de heilige grot (sainte Baume)Tarascon. Remaining particularly committed to the release of prisoners (Was she herself not freed from 7 demons) she withdrew voluntarily from public life and retired to a cave to further pay for her sins, renouncing the world and thus gaining heaven.

This legend blends with the story of Mary of Egypt. Every day - according to legend - Angels came from heaven to feed her with heavenly food and drink. In many paintings we see Mary Magdalene dressed in her hair, sitting in a cave. A jar of oil besides her and often staring at a skull (tested symbol of the transience of all earthly things ('vanitas'). Scattered jewelry and other attributes that make a woman feel beautiful, underline this same motif. The anointing oil that the 'real' Mary used, wasn't it perfume after all !? Iconographically the  most striking is the influence of the legend of Mary the Egyptian, when Mary Magdalene is supposed to levitate heavenwards to receive food and drink, surrounded by angels. klik om Magdalena te zien
One version of the legend even reports that after a frivolous worldly life the Egyptian Maria had to punish herself by becoming wholly unattractive. Not easy for such a beautiful woman. The solution is found. She doesn't only grow lush hair on her head, but her entiry body is covered with hair, seriously reducing her attractiveness. Even this motif can be found in Magdalene's iconography in one of the images of her angelic Levitation and to receive her heavenly dinner.

Mary in Burgundy

This Mary, in the middle of the 11th century, becomes a real hype in France, when the abbot of the monastery of Vézélay (founded in 860 in honor of Mary Magdalene, or is the dedication to her from a later date?) in the 11th Century claims that the bones of Mary are actually buried below that Church (the Ste. Madeleine). How is that possible, one might ask? While the Sarracenes were conquering the Provence, so the story goes, a monk got a dream in which Mary herself ordered him to collect her bones from her sarcophage in a small Church (Saint-Maximin in the Provence), and bring them to Vézelay. So he did. In 1058 Pope Stephen IX grants a privilege for a pilgrimage to the monastery and the small village of Vézélay is flooded by pilgrims, including a remarkable number of released prisoners (from their shackles a chain is forged that spans the entire choir). A new larger church has to be built. When a few centuries later doubts about these bones begin to spread, they are discovered below the high altar (1265). However, it is in vain: In 1295 the bones of Mary are discovered in... Saint-Maximin-de-Sainte-Baume in the Provence. [The discoverers don't deny that monks from Vézelay were there, but they claim these took the wrong bones with them. How a legitimizing legend can backfire!]. Pope Boniface declares these bones to be the real ones. The story of Vézélay is over... but not the story of Mary Magdalene.

She now has her own place on the church calendar: July 22 and is part of the collective memory of Western Europe. She is present as idiom in many languages (Magdalenism is old English for prostitution, a magdalenarium  is a home for fallen women and girls, etc ...) and no "Jesus movie" can do without her. Mary Magdalene, both in its biblical and her legendary stature is and remains an important figure for identification.

Mary Magdalene today

Finally, the story of this complex woman, whether she is one or three or four, has deep connections with some of the very essentials of Christian faith.
In Luke 7, she places the theme of love on the agenda and not some vague spiritual love, but emotional and physical attachment. This is so real, physcial, that Simon the Pharisee on behalf of the entire civilized world shouts: How inappropriate, unheard of!... Is it ?
In John 12, she - starting from that same love - she unmasks the world of counting and calculating men by wasting a fortune spilling the ointment. En passant the social indignation about the same is put in a very peculiar light. It is inappropriate, unheard of!, Judas shouts on behalf of all followers of Jesus... Is it ?
And in John 20 again starting from that same love (but now emergin from the other side) she throws overboard the only certainty in this life with the message that the grave is empty, that Jesus is risen: idle tales, girl talk, inappropriate, unheard of, the apostles shout in unison, dead is dead... Is it ?

Encore, or Post Scriptum

Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, made Mary Magdalene more popular than ever. Well done!
Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene married, did they have children ? We don't know anything. So every statement (pro/contra) is de facto hypothetical. Historically, it is only safe to say that:

  1. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi and that
  2. Mary Magdalene was very much attached to this rabbi and hung out with him and that
  3. she occupied a prominent place in the circle of followers.

This is the maximum you can say based on the oldest sources we have (i.c. the biblical gospel stories, still half a century older than the extra-biblical gospel traditions)
The rest is phantasy and Die Gedanken sind frei ...
The church has developed her image in one direction (you can read above), others can do what they like (read Dan Brown).
Mary herself sits in heaven and laughs ..


  • Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalen. Myth and Metaphor, Harper Collins, London, 1993
  • Eve Duperray, éd. Marie Madeleine dans la mystique, les arts et les lettres, actes du colloque international, Avignon 20-21-22 juillet 1988, Beauchesne, Paris, 1988 (citaat van George Duby uit het voorwoord)
  • Jan van Laarhoven, De beeldtaal van de christelijke kunst, Sun, Nijmegen 1992
  • Louis Goosen, Van Andreas tot Zacheüs, Sun, Nijmegen 1992
  • Margaret Arnold, The Magdalene in the Reformation, Ashgate, 2018 (NB: much broader than the Reformation alone!)

link: Mary of Egypt in English

Dick Wursten


This site was last updated
 October, 2023


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