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

"When our Lord ascended to heaven after His sufferings in the fourteenth year, when Stephanus had long before been stoned by the Jews and the other disciples had been expelled from Judea, the disciples went into many lands in order to spread the word of God. With these apostles was Maximinus, one of the Lord's seventy - two disciples to whose guardianship St. Peter had commended Mary Magdalene. When the disciples were scattered St. Maximinus, Mary Magdalene, her brother Lazarus, her sister Martha with her servant Martilla and Cedonius (who was born blind but who had been cured by the Lord) and many other Christians were gathered on a ship by the heathens which was then pushed into the ocean so that they would all perish. By God's providence, however, they arrived in Massilia. They found no one who wanted to give them hospitality and therefore remained in the vestibule of the heathens' temple."

The Aurea Legenda then tells how Mary Magdalene miraculously helped a prince, his wife, and their son. The Legend continues:

"Mary Magdalene desired meditation and went into the forest wilderness where she lived incognito for thirty years in a place prepared for her by the hands of angels. In this place there were neither fountains nor trees nor grass. This indicates that our Lord did not want to sustain her with earthly food but with heavenly nourishment. Every day she was led to the heavens by the angels-seven times for the seven hours of prayer-and with her own ears she heard the chants of the heavenly hosts. And every day she was taken back to earth with this sweet nourishment so that she never needed earthly food."

According to this legend Mary Magdalene died in Aix in Southern France and was buried there by the Bishop Maximinus. Some of her remains later were taken to the French monastery of Vézelay, the church of which carried her name.

Voyage to Marseilles 1320s
Magdalen Chapel, Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi

Lucas Moser
Magdalen Altar 1432
St Mary Magdalene, Tiefenbronn

Master of the Magdalen Legend
Mary Magdalen Preaching c. 1518
(Philadelphia, Museum of Art, Johnson Collection)

Penitent Mary Magdalen, 1450s
polychromed wood with gold
Height 6' 6" (Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence)

Magdalen Master
Penitent Magdalen
with scenes from her life
c. 1270
(Florence, Galleria dell'Accademia)

Mary Magdalen taken up in the air 1320s
Magdalen Chapel, Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi

Giovanni Lanfranco
Mary Magdalen taken up in the air c. 1605
(Naples, Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte)

Mary Magdalen taken up in the air c. 1610
(St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum)

Breviary of Martin of Aragon (BNF, ROTH 2529) fol. 354v
Saint Mary Magdalene and the priest, illuminated initial (60 x 60 mm), Spain, Catalonia 15th Century
(Image Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris)

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