Da Vinci's Code

Professor Christopher Witcombe, Art History


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Mary Magdalen: Legend and Cult

EXCERPT FROM: Witcombe, "The Chapel of the Courtesan and the Quarrel of the Magdalens," Art Bulletin, 2002

Pope Gregory's composite Magdalen (see Gregory's Homily 33) was quickly assimilated into the sermons and writings of the early Middle Ages. It can be recognized, for example, in the words of St. Ambrose quoted in the thirteenth century by Jacobus de Voragine in The Golden Legend.

Soon thereafter, perhaps as early as the seventh century, there began to emerge the legend of Mary Magdalen that eventually produced a cult of great popularity. Lacking entirely any scriptural basis, the legend relates that after Christ's ascension Mary Magdalen could no longer look on any other man, and so she went into the desert where she stayed alone for thirty years. She lived naked and took no human food or drink. She was never hungry or thirsty, however. At the canonical hours angels came down from heaven and took her up into the air where she was nourished by the heavenly joys. The angels then returned her to her cave in the rocks. After thirty years she was found in the desert by a holy priest who lent her some clothes and conducted her to his church where he gave her the sacrament. She then died and the priest buried her. See Mary Magdalen's Later Life in Provence

The story appears as early as the ninth century in the manuscript Vita eremitica beatae Mariae Magdalenae, which, in the Middle Ages, was believed to have been written either by the Jewish scholar and historian Flavius Josephus (c. 37-c. 100) or by the Greek Christian historian St. Hegesippus (late second century).

A detail found in the legend of Mary Magdalen that had been circulating since at least the ninth century says that after the ascension she fled into "the Arabian desert" (see below).

In the eleventh century, hagiographers began to locate this episode in Provence in the South of France. The earliest dated reference to this tradition of Mary Magdalen's presence in the South of France is a papal bull issued by Pope Benedict IX in 1040 in connection with the consecration of the abbey church of St. Victor in Marseilles. The bull recognized that the church was built on the ruins of a church (destroyed by the Saracens) in which St. Lazarus, "raised from the dead by Jesus Christ," had been buried with other companions, including St. Victor.

This location was reinforced in the middle of the eleventh century when the abbey of Vézelay under Abbot Geoffrey claimed to possess the body of Mary Magdalen. Then, in the thirteenth century, the legend was further localized when the cave where legend says Mary Magdalen spent her years in penitential solitude was identifed as the cavern, known as La Sainte-Baume, high up in the massif of Provence about fifteen miles from Marseilles.

La Sainte-Baume (recent photograph)

The Grotto at La Sainte-Baume (from an old postcard)

Susan Haskins translates "Sainte Baume" as "Holy Balm." No doubt it was the name "balm," an aromatic ointment, through which Mary Magdalen became associated with the cave.

The legend of Mary Magdalen in Provence has been the subject of many studies and intense debate.

It has been recognized since at least the ninth century that the basis for the story of the penitential part of Mary Magdalen's life was the legend of St. Mary of Egypt. According to the story being told in the thirteenth century in The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, after living as a prostitute for seventeen years in Alexandria, Mary had traveled from Egypt to Palestine by ship (paid for by selling her body to all the men on board) where, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, she repented and retreated to the desert. She lived there for many years on three loaves of bread. Eventually her clothes wore out and she lived naked.

SEE Here beginneth the life of Mary of Egypt. Text through Medieval Sourcebook: The Golden Legend (Aurea Legenda). Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, 1275. Englished by William Caxton, 1483

The story of St. Mary of Egypt, recorded in the seventh century in a Greek text attributed to Sophronius (c. 560-638), is related by Mary herself to the monk Zosimus who found her in the desert towards the end of her life.


Zosimus gives his cloak to St. Mary of Egypt

St. Mary of Egypt

The conflation of the two stories also served to establish more clearly Mary Magdalen's identity as a former prostitute.


Quentin Metsys (1466-1530)
Penitent Mary Magdalen (left) and Penitent Mary of Egypt (right)
(Philadelphia, Museum of Fine Art, John G. Johnson Collection)

It should be noted, however, that the association of the story of St. Mary of Egypt with that of Mary Magdalen was not universally approved. A fourteenth-century manuscript of the life of St. Mary Magdalen in Magdalen College, Oxford, for example, attributed to the ninth-century archbishop of Mainz, Rabanus Maurus (an attribution now largely rejected, but the ninth-century dating still generally supported), dismisses the legend:

    "That after Our Saviour's Ascension she should have fled at once into the Arabian desert, should have lived there unknown to all, without clothing, in a cave, and that she should have seen no one; that, visited by a priest, she should have asked him for his garments, and suchlike details, are as many false stories, borrowed by fable-mongers from the story of the Egyptian penitent."

Virtually the same story is repeated in thirteenth-century manuscript collection of saints lives in the Bibliothèque de l'École de Médechine de Montpellier:

    "Caeterum, quod post Salvatoris ascensionem statim in heremum Arabiae fugerit; quod in specu sine veste latuerit; quod numquam postea virum viderit; quod a presbytero, nescio quo visitata vestem petierit et caetera hujusmodi falsissima sunt et a fictoribus fabularum de gestis poenitentis Egyptiacae mutata. Quin et ipsi in inicio fabulae suae mendacii se accusant, Josepho dissertissimo historiographo narrationem suam ascribentes, cum Josephus, in libris suis nusquam Marie Magdalene meminerit."

These responses are also proof of the currency of the story.

The image of Mary Magdalen as a penitent prostitute fully emerges in the wake of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the founding of the two great mendicant orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Canon number 21 promulgated by the Fourth Lateran Council was a reformulation of the sacrament of penance. Canon number 10 officially sanctioned popular preaching by the mendicant orders. Both decrees were to have an immediate impact on Mary Magdalen's role. Both the Franciscans and Dominicans made the preaching of penance central to their sermons, and from the outset Mary Magdalen was adopted as the model penitent saint, the paradigm of penance.

In 1210, when Francis of Assisi and his followers had gone to Rome to seek Innocent III's approval of their order, the pope had given them permission to preach, but only on the topic of repentance. Although St. Francis himself did not include Mary Magdalen among those saints designated by him for veneration in the Regula Prima, the Franciscans found her very compatable with the Order's preoccupation with penance.

The Dominicans, founded in 1216, had, by 1295, unofficially adopted Mary Magdalen as their patron. This adoption coincided with the granting to the Dominicans of the supervision of the immensely important Magdalen pilgrimage sites of La Sainte-Baume and Saint Maximin in Provence.

The preaching of penance by the Franciscans and Dominicans was an immediate success. The sermons gave Mary Magdalen a new significance and heightened interest in her both as a penitent and as a prostitute.


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