ST MARY MAGDALENE is to the Gospels as Orson Welles is to The Third Man: the tantalising brevity of her appearance makes her only more compelling. Even if you include only those texts that name her explicitly, her cameo is clearly pivotal; and who can blame the ancient and medieval preachers who bundled her up with a series of other Gospel women, from the bride at Cana to Mary of Bethany?
Even before the Reformation crisis broke, scholars were starting to rein back such enthusiasms, but by now, as John Donne said, to split the Magdalene into many women was only to glorify her the more. She was too compelling to ignore. That meant, in an era of bitter divisions, that she was also too potent to let the other side claim her for themselves.
Margaret Arnold’s book does exactly what its title promises: she leads us through the 16th and 17th centuries’ many Marys. The book has an impressively wide range, covering every confession, drawing on German, French, English, Italian, and other sources, and alive to the visual arts and to poetry as well as to theological, homiletic, and devotional writing. I could only wish the pictures were in colour.
In the Middle Ages, the Magdalene was the indispensable sinner-saint: with Christ’s humanity all but lost in glory, and even the Virgin wreathed in inaccessible sinlessness, the other Mary became the site where the incarnation’s work of God’s touching ordinary life actually happened. This was only reinforced by the tradition of placing the most dangerously potent of the Bible’s devotional texts — the Song of Songs — in Mary’s mouth.
SUPERSTOCKMagdalena, an engraving (c.1607-12) by Jacob Matham, after Hendrik Goltzius
Counter-Reformation Catholicism did its best to make Magdalene piety more restrained and respectable, with mixed success. The hierarchy now wanted Mary chiefly as the patron of anti-prostitution campaigns (a story that Arnold barely touches on), but, in fact, her example continued to fire up Catholics, and especially Catholic women. Teresa of Ávila, in particular, found the Magdalene an indispensable inspiration for her own dance between obedience and defiance.
Protestants had different concerns. She mattered profoundly to Luther, who maintained the traditional identification of the Magdalene with the sinful woman of Luke 7.36-50. This pseudo-Magdalene became a model of heartfelt Lutheran penitence, in which good works arise spontaneously from faith — a pattern reinforced by the Magdalene’s identity with Mary of Bethany, who chose simple faith as a better part than Martha’s ostentatious bustle of good works. Luther did, however, write the Magdalene out of the Cana story, since he was repelled by the medieval tale of how that marriage had ended with both spouses’ embracing the higher call of celibacy.
Calvin, distressingly for those of us with a soft spot for him, was at his absolute worst on this subject, sniping grouchily at Mary’s womanish emotions in Gethsemane. This was more than just native cantankerousness. He was all too aware that Mary’s bringing the news of the resurrection, and so acting as apostolorum apostola, made her a potential precedent for women’s preaching — a possibility that Luther had recklessly entertained, and which Calvin was determined to foreclose.
Too late. As Arnold shows us, women across the spectrum claimed the Magdalene as their justification for lifting their voices. If radicals such as the Quakers leapt on her example especially eagerly, respectable believers on all sides were never far behind. Katharine Schütz Zell, now widely acknowledged as the Reformation era’s leading female Protestant theologian, cited the Magdalene’s precedent when preaching her own husband’s funeral oration in 1548. Yes, she admitted, Mary’s call to preach had been exceptional, but for her, too, the urgency of the moment overwhelmed conventional good order.
Perhaps such things can only happen in extraordinary times. Yet, since the Magdalene’s message was first announced to the apostles, no Christian has ever lived in ordinary times.
Dr Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University.
The Magdalene in the Reformation,
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