Mary Magdalene at the tomb

04.21.2019 | Catherine Gines Taylor

Here in Provence, France the mustard fields are draped in yellow, and irises, poppies, and wild thyme are in bloom. This landscape sharply contrasts to spring in my high desert homeland where snow in April often freezes the aspirations of daffodils and tender apricot blossoms. A new set of scenery is good for the senses and during this Holy Week a new vermilion green rebirth is happening in the earth with bursting immediacy.

While I have been doing fieldwork in southern France during this Paschal season, I have been contemplating the people in Jesus’s life and the people in my life. In my experience as a practicing Latter-day Saint woman, when we talk about Jesus and his presence we tend to project that experience into the antique past or else into the future, into his promised Apocalyptic and Millenial reign.

As a believer, I also share in the promise of that future vision. In fact, I hope for it. I enact that hope in my weekly devotions and as I prepare for the holy sacrament with an open, receptive heart.

As an art historian, I am also deeply committed to understanding the past and the early Christian material experience. The evidences I have explored maintain the notion that Jesus and his companions were present figures within the early Christian experience, not distant from it.

Mary Magdalene. Click to enlarge.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the embodiment of love in the figure of Mary Magdalene. According to legend, Mary Magdalene and several of her companions traveled to France after Jesus’s death. An Apostle to the apostles, she continued to spread the good news that Jesus Christ is Emmanuel, God with Us. Evidence for this message is everywhere in Provence. The early Christians believed it and represented themselves as part of that reality. This belief is also present with us now, not only represented in the past or in some kind of carefully timed future event. Jesus’s atonement, death, and resurrection—which Mary anticipated and anointed him toward—allow us to be in communion with him by these very acts of love.

Basilica of Mary Magdalene at Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume

I recently visited two important sites in France associated with the complex figure of the Magdalene. The first site is the Basilica of Mary Magdalene at Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, the cathedral containing the chief relics of Mary Magdalene, including her tomb and skull.

Relics and legendary traditions are interesting things. The longer they have been around and the stranger they are, the greater the attestation to some thread of viability to my mind.

My primary purpose in visiting the basilica was to study and photograph the sarcophagi in the crypt, not to determine the veracity of relics. And yet here she was represented, the one who loved the very incarnation of love, Jesus Christ.

I am certain that we have only part of the Magdalene’s story in the canonical Gospels, along with some additional nuances about her from the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Mary. Patristic history has not done Mary Magdalene many favors. In fact, she is often conflated with Mary of Bethany and even takes on the false identity of repentant prostitute by way of Pope Gregory who wrote as much in the sixth century. Without doing a full assessment of scholarly documentation here, it is sufficient to say that in many ways the Magdalene still remains quite enigmatic in her identity. Sorting out her role in the Kingdom of Heaven and how she was perceived in earliest Christianity are only fragments of the textual and art historical questions worth investigating.

Although we don’t know for sure what happened to Mary Magdalene following her encounter with Jesus after the resurrection, it is clear that there were Christians who understood her to possess the teachings of Jesus. It is useful to understand and imagine the earliest devotees who recognized the voice of women as true disciples, followers, even companions to Jesus.

The second location associated directly with the Magdalene is a grotto kept by the Dominican order on the cliffs of Sainte Baume mountain. My daughter and I decided to hike the trail to the top to see the place where the Magdalene legendarily lived out the remainder of her life.

The cliffs of Sainte Baume mountain

Our walk was contemplative and we met other pilgrims, primarily women, along our path. We talked together about our future plans and took note of the natural beauty around us. Our conversation turned to people in our circles who have found circumstances in their lives to be particularly difficult—those who feel unseen or unheard, those who are most in need of the warm presence of a friend. We reached the grotto and said our silent prayers.

Grotto statue of Mary Magdalene

I looked out at the valley view and I remembered the “Magdal-eder” or Hebrew “Tower of the Flock” prophecy from Micah 4:8-11. Margaret Starbird, in her work on the Magdalene, associates this scripture and the Magdal-eder with “Mary of Magdala” as an honorific title.

8 As for you, watchtower of the flock,
stronghold of Daughter Zion,
the former dominion will be restored to you;
kingship will come to Daughter Jerusalem.”
9 Why do you now cry aloud—
have you no king? Has your ruler perished,
that pain seizes you like that of a woman in labor?
10 Writhe in agony, Daughter Zion,
like a woman in labor,
for now you must leave the city
to camp in the open field.
You will go to Babylon;
there you will be rescued.
There the Lord will redeem you
out of the hand of your enemies. (NIV)

I like both translations for their different nuances:

8 And thou, O tower of the flock, the strong hold of the daughter of Zion, unto thee shall it come, even the first dominion; the kingdom shall come to the daughter of Jerusalem.
9 Now why dost thou cry out aloud? is there no king in thee? is thy counsellor perished? for pangs have taken thee as a woman in travail.
10 Be in pain, and labour to bring forth, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail: for now shalt thou go forth out of the city, and thou shalt dwell in the field, and thou shalt go even to Babylon; there shalt thou be delivered; there the Lord shall redeem thee from the hand of thine enemies. (KJV)

Here I was, standing on a watchtower, contemplating the intuitively generous power of righteous women in my life.

Women who stand as towers at the perennial gates of life and death and execute wisdom, intelligence, and a variety of able capacities and nurturance in their work, their relationships, their vocations. It became clear to me how consecrated, self-emptying, abundant love between our sisters and brothers is necessary in our own time—not only in a garden long ago, but now in ourselves, our relationships, our institutions. Jesus’s imperative is to love as he loves, now. To love him, to love ourselves, to love each other, now.

Finally, I want to set forth a contemplative image that reflects this kind of love and which took me by serendipitous surprise. I was in the Museum of History and Art in Geneva, Switzerland on Palm Sunday. In most art museums, I ordinarily pass at a pace through the endless Renaissance galleries in search of late antique treasures, but a particular painting caught my attention. Veronese’s Entombment, 1575-1580.

Veronese’s Entombment

The painting was originally given to Louis XIV by Pope Innocent XII and remained at Versailles in the King’s apartments until the French Revolution. The body of Christ is being laid in a sarcophagus by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. There are four women present: Mary the Mother of Christ is on the left with John attending to her, Mary the sister of Jesus’s mother is on the right with another female figure in the far distance, and in the foreground kneeling is Mary Magdalene. I had been looking for images of the Magdalene, so I pulled out my reading glasses (a recommended must-have for any serious museum visitor) to look very closely at her figure.

The Magdalene, her fair hair half-tied up in some haste, has her back to us, but her body is set forward in the picture plane. She is in our space. Her garment is blue with a rose-colored shawl with a stripe of blue running through it, reminiscent of a Hebrew prayer shawl. A golden palla has fallen from her head and is her over her right shoulder. Her left hand gestures over the newly-removed crown of thorns at the base of the sarcophagus and her right hand supports the left hand of Christ. I recognize that Veronese is likely highlighting the wounds of Christ, made for our sake, with these gestures. Yet, the artist also presents the Magdalene’s face close to Jesus’s hand, perhaps close enough to kiss it. This detailed gesture sent a bit of a shock through me. Earlier that same day I had re-read the account of Jesus’s burial from Matthew 27:59-61

59 And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth,
60 And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.
61 And there was Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre. (KJV)

What stood out to me was that the Magdalene was there; she stayed, she stood watch.

The tender touch of Veronese’s Magdalene

Cynthia Bourgeault suggests that she may have remained for the duration of the entombment, or at least perhaps all through the night. Veronese’s Magdalene and her touch captured for me this whole tether of love that knows no boundary in death. In fact, it is a living, present kind of love that extends beyond absence and brings the resurrected Christ back to the Magdalene first in the garden to speak her name, “Mary.” From anointing in life to anointing in death, Mary Magdalene loved much and was loved. This kind of love provides an eternal bind. It is restorative, creative, redemptive, and even divinely given to us.

What tethers you and me? What relationships are we willing to strengthen? These are questions for this Eastertide and for this season of rebirth.

Jesus, our Lord, is risen and he is as near, as necessary, and can be as intimate for each of us as our own breath.

Stained glass window from the Sainte-Baume Grotto