Da Vinci's Code

Professor Christopher Witcombe, Art History


Mary Magdalen: Life, Legend, and Cult


EXCERPT FROM: The Life of Mary Magdalen, from the Legenda Aurea (13th century) by Jacopo di Voragine

Mary Magdalene has the name Magdalene which was originally a fortress (Magdalum). She was of noble birth, in fact of royalty. Her father's name was Syrus, her mother's Eucharia. She, her brother Lazarus and her sister Martha owned the castle two miles from the Sea Genezareth as well as the village of Bethany near Jerusalem, plus a considerable part of the city of Jerusalem, but they distributed their treasures so that Mary Magdalene owned the castle which also appears in her name while Lazarus owned part of Jerusalem and Martha Bethany. Since Magdalene became a woman of the streets and Lazarus a knight, Martha took care of the possessions of both and she reigned over them with prudence. Martha cared for all her warriors, servants and for the poor. But when the Lord died they sold all of their belongings and donated the money from the sale to the Apostles.

Magdalene was extremely wealthy and bodily pleasure is always an associate of wealth. As she saw her beauty and her wealth she fulfilled herself in nothing but bodily pleasures. As a result, she lost her good name and was simply referred to as the sinner.

When Christ preached in the country she came - by God's providence - into the house of Simon the leper for she had heard that Christ was going to eat there. Not daring to sit among the just because she was a sinner she walked straight up to the Lord, washed His feet with her tears, dried them with her hair and anointed them, for it was the custom that the people used ointments for the heat of the sun was great. Simon the Pharisee thought "If this were a prophet he would scarcely allow himself to be touched by a sinner." But the Lord punished him because of the superficiality of his justice and forgave the woman for all her sins.

This is the Mary Magdalene upon whom God bestowed such great grace and to whom he made evident so many signs of love. He expelled seven evil spirits from her and inspired in her the love for Him. He made her a special friend, a great hostess and a help on His road. He excused her at all times with great love, defended her against the Pharisee who had called her impure, against her sister who had accused her of idleness, and against Judas who had called her a spendthrift. And whenever He saw her weeping He wept, too.

The Lord loved her so much that He awakened her brother from death even though he had been in the grave for four days, and He cured her sister Martha of hemorrhages that had made her suffer for seven years. Out of love for her He blessed Martilla, the maiden of her sister that she raised her voice and said the sweet words of St. Luke 11, 27 "Blessed is the womb that bare thee and the paps which thou has sucked." For when Ambrose spoke the hemorrhaging woman was Martha and the woman who spoke these words was her servant. However, Magdalene was the woman who washed the Lord's feet with her tears, dried them with her hair and anointed them with ointment. In the time of grace she did her first penitence. She elected the best part, she sat at the feet of the Lord to hear His word, she anointed His head, she stood near the cross when He died, she prepared the ointment for His corpse, she did not leave the grave when the disciples did leave the grave. She was the one to whom the Lord appeared first when He was resurrected and she was the woman whom the Lord made the Apostle of the Apostles.

Sandro Botticelli
Conversion of Mary Magdalen, predella from the Pala dei Convertite, c. 1491
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalen, c.1598-1599
(Detroit, Institute of Fine Arts)

Mary, the sister of Martha, bathing Christ's feet, Codex Egberti (c. 990 CE) (Stadtbibliothek, Trier)

Marcantonio, Mary Magdalen Bathing Christ's Feet

Duccio, Resurrection of Lazarus, 1308-11 (Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum)

Christ at Supper with Simon the Pharisee, tapestry, ca. 1510-1520 (Paris, Galerie Chevalier)
Image Source

Rogier van der Weyden, The Magdalene Reading, 1445 (London, National Gallery)

Masaccio, Crucifixion, 1426 (Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte)

Master of the "Virgo inter Virgines," Crucifixion, 1490s (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi)

Luca Signorelli, Crucifixion with Mary Magdalen, c. 1500 (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi)

Matthias Grünewald, Crucifixion, 1515
(Colmar, Musée d'Unterlinden)

Rogier van der Weyden, The Deposition, c. 1435 (Madrid, Museo del Prado)


Two Marys at the Tomb
Early Christian ivory (c. 400 C.E.)

Three Marys at the Tomb, 1308-11, Tempera on wood, 51 x 53,5 cm
(Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo)

Francesco Albani
Three Marys at the Tomb, 1640s - 1650s
(St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum)

Noli Me Tangere