Da Vinci's Code

Professor Christopher Witcombe, Art History


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Mary Magdalen and the "Quarrel of the Magdalens"

EXCERPT FROM: Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe, "The Chapel of the Courtesan and the Quarrel of the Magdalens" Art Bulletin, 2002

In 1518, Pope Gregory the Great's long-standing composite Magdalen was questioned by the French humanist Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples (also known as Faber Stapulensis). In his book De Maria Magdalena, published in Paris by Henri Estienne, Lefèvre argued that the medieval Magdalen was a conflation of three separate New Testament women. His claim provoked considerable debate - known as "the Quarrel of the Magdalens" - that continued into the 1520s.

The dispute had begun innocently enough. Following a pilgrimage to La Sainte-Baume in January 1516, Louise of Savoy, the mother of Francis I, had asked François du Moulin de Rochefort, an old friend of the royal family and the king's former tutor, to write a life of Mary Magdalen.

Du Moulin dutifully set about producing a manuscript, the Vie de Saincte Madeleine, illustrated with seventy small round miniatures documenting the life of Mary Magdalen painted by the Flemish manuscript illuminator Godefroy le Batave. For help in sorting out the conflicting details of the gospel accounts, du Moulin turned to his former teacher, the pious and scholarly humanist Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples.

In his examination of the Magdalen tradition, Lefèvre revived a tradition found among the early Greek fathers such as Origen and Chrysostom, as well as Jerome and Ambrose, which distinguished three different women. Lefèvre was especially concerned to separate the woman named Mary Magdalen from the unnamed sinner found in LUKE 7: 36-50. Lefèvre's argument, undertaken with impeccable scholarly exegesis, effectively undermined the existence of one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages. Conservative forces in the Church were not pleased and the reaction to Lefèvre's argument was immediate.

The first response came from the Augustinian canon of Saint Victor, Marc de Grandval, who published an apologia in September 1518 arguing that there was only one Mary Magdalen. Four months later, John Fisher, bishop of Rochester and chancellor of Cambridge University, weighed in with three tracts in which he attacked Lefèvre's arguments and upheld the conservative position of the Church.

Lefèvre also had his defenders. In response to Grandval's apologia, Josse Clichtove published Disceptationis de Magdalena, Defensio: Apologia Marci Grandivallis illam improbare nitentis, ex adverso respondens in April 1519 in which he expanded Lefèvre's arguments.

Meanwhile, in response to Fisher's criticisms of his book, Lefèvre published a second treatise: De Tribus Et Unica Magdalena Disceptatio secunda. In his first book, Lefèvre had argued that of the three women in question two had been named Mary Magdalen.

This difficult and confusing position Lefèvre abandoned in his second book and focused instead on distinguishing the woman named Mary Magdalen from Mary the sister of Martha.

Fisher, however, was not satisfied with this reformulation and responded with his Confutatio Secundae Disceptationis published in September 1519.

Others entered the fray and more tracts were published. By 1520, however, the "quarrel" had begun to die down, though tracts, such as the two by Giovanni Maria Tholosani delle Colle, a Dominican pupil of Savonarola at S. Marco in Florence, continued to be written as late as 1522.


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