Mary Magdalene: why do people want to believe she was a sinner and prostitute?

Presented in the New Testament gospels as a mourner at the Crucifixion of Christ and witness to his resurrection, Mary Magdalene has for more than 2,000 years been portrayed as a repentant prostitute who supposedly washed Jesus's feet with expensive ointment. Yet there is no reference to Mary being a prostitute or a sinner in any of the New Testament gospels. Why, then, has the notion of Mary Magdalene as a fallen woman proved to be so popular?

Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene, in a painting by Paolo Veronese (1528-88). In the Beaux-Arts Museum, Grenoble, France. Mary Magdalene is presented in the New Testament gospels as a mourner at the Crucifixion of Christ and witness to his resurrection, but the Mary most familiar to us today is a former prostitute. (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

Here, Dr Hetta Howes explores the real Mary Magdalene, separating fact from fiction…

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Rooney Mara, the latest Hollywood film star to take on the role of Mary Magdalene, plays the character in an unexpected and decidedly feminist way. In Garth Davis’s quiet but compelling retelling of the Gospel (in Mary Magdalene, released in March 2018), Mary is neither love interest, prostitute, nor sinner. Instead she is Christ’s confidante, the witness to his miracles, and the voice of compassion among his disciples, unwavering in the face of tradition and misogyny.

The Mary Magdalene that is most familiar to us today – the former prostitute who washes Jesus’s feet with expensive ointment and weeps at his Crucifixion – was cemented in the Middle Ages. Medieval writers were invested in making Mary a penitent sinner and a reformed convert. As far as we know (which is frustratingly little), Garth Davis’s characterisation of Mary Magdalene is no more ‘true’ or historically accurate than the medieval representation of Mary as a prostitute. While historians are constantly on the hunt for more details, our knowledge of this biblical woman is scant.

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene in the 2018 film ‘Mary Magdalene’. (Photo by Lifestyle pictures/Alamy Stock Photo)
Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene in the 2018 film ‘Mary Magdalene’. (Photo by Lifestyle pictures/Alamy Stock Photo)

And so, the lore and the legends that fill in the blanks left by the Gospel – whether they come in the form of medieval theological writings or 21st-century screenplays – are just that: myths. However, these myths can be incredibly revealing in and of themselves, reflecting the outlook and vision of the particular historical moment that helped to create them.

So, who was Mary Magdalene? And why were medieval writers so eager to make her a sinner?

Who was Mary Magdalene?

There are two Marys mentioned in the Gospels who became conflated in the Middle Ages. First, there’s Mary of Bethany, sister to Lazarus (who Jesus brought back from the dead), who is commended for her attentiveness to Jesus’s teaching. And then there’s Mary from Magdala, a city on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (aka Mary Magdalene). She is possessed by seven demons, which Jesus drives out of her; she kneels with Jesus’s mother, the Virgin Mary, during the Crucifixion; she discovers that Jesus’s body is missing from its tomb on Easter Monday and then mistakes him for the gardener before he reveals himself. She is then given the crucial task of heralding the news of Christ’s resurrection to his other disciples.

A painting of the repentant Mary Magdalene, found in the collection of State Hermitage, St Petersburg, dating from the 16th century. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Pope Gregory the Great famously melded these two biblical women together, under the name ‘Mary Magdalene’, in a homily preached in 591. And he also added into the mix an unnamed adulteress, who was redeemed by Jesus and who washed his feet with ointment in penitence. Pope Gregory’s mistake stuck. Nowhere in the Gospel are details given about the demons which Jesus supposedly casts out of Mary Magdalene. But, after Gregory’s homily and its attribution of adultery to Mary, her possession is usually associated not just with sin, but with sexual sin. The confusion lingers. Hundreds of years later, in the 16th century, the Catholic poet and writer Robert Southwell penned a tract called Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears, in which he describes Mary Magdalene crying over Lazarus (confusing her with Lazarus’s sister, Mary of Bethany).

Medieval Mary myths

Throughout the Middle Ages, writers were quick to fill in the blanks left by the Gospel, which only added to the confusion of fact and fiction. Various legends about Mary Magdalene’s life started to crop up in the Middle Ages and they were collated in the 13th century by Jacobus de Voraigne. His book, The Golden Legend, which described the lives and legends of various saints, was incredibly popular, surviving today in more than 1,000 manuscripts. According to the Golden Legend, Mary Magdalene was of noble blood, young and beautiful. But she was also wealthy, and this was her downfall.

The repentant Mary Magdalene, found in the Collection of Labirinto di Franco Maria Ricci. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
The repentant Mary Magdalene, found in the Collection of Labirinto di Franco Maria Ricci. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Jacobus writes: “As rich as Mary was, she was no less beautiful; and so entirely had she abandoned her body to pleasure that she was no longer called by any other name than ‘the sinner’.” Despite a complete lack of evidence that Mary Magdalene fell victim to sexual sin, this fault is inscribed into her widely read hagiography. After Mary is redeemed by Christ, Jacobus tells us, Mary preached in Marseilles, where she converted the ruling family, enabled the queen to conceive a son, and then resurrected her after she died in childbirth. Mary then retreated into the wilderness, living alone for 30 years before being carried off to heaven by the angels.

From sinner, to preacher, to contemplative, to saint, Mary Magdalene is associated with miracle cures; assistance at childbirth; raising the dead; and freeing the imprisoned. However, the most enduring detail is always her sin. She is the patron saint of repentant prostitutes in the Middle Ages, and reformation houses for women who had been prostitutes (or were otherwise considered ‘fallen’) were by the 18th century called ‘Magdalen Houses’.

So why did Pope Gregory’s mistake back in 591 have such staying power? Why was it so important to medieval writers that Mary Magdalene was “the sinner” before she became the saint?

A 12th-century illumination depicting Pope Gregory c600 AD with a halo and a hand raised in blessing. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A 12th-century illumination depicting Pope Gregory c600 AD with a halo and a hand raised in blessing. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Madonna and the Whore

Historians have long recognised that the medieval period was fond of pedalling two stereotypes of women: the Madonna and the Whore. The Madonna is the aspiration. Figureheaded by the Virgin Mary, she is the epitome of virtue and modesty, the sort of woman that every young girl should try to emulate. The Whore is the reality – or so many misogynistic writers would have their readers believe.

In medieval Europe, Christianity was the predominant religion, and both the Bible and theological writers from the period repeatedly underlined the sinful nature of women. Eve was famously disobedient, tempted by the devil, and she ultimately caused humanity to be cast out of the Garden of Eden. Her “original sin” is frequently cited as a source and example of women’s sinful nature – medieval handbooks for religious women reminded female readers that they were naturally more susceptible to sin than men and so were advised to be even more careful to protect themselves from temptation.

Portrait of theologian and Bible translator John Wycliffe (c1330–84). (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Even medically, women were historically understood to be weaker, and therefore more likely to sin. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, nature always wants to create the most perfect animal – the male. But adverse reproductive conditions can result in an unfortunate second-best: the imperfect female. According to Aristotle’s theory, babies are born female because they haven’t received enough heat during gestation. Therefore, women are wet, cold and weak by nature. Men, by contrast, are hot, dry and strong. Because of this, women were considered ‘sex-mad’, unable to restrain themselves in the same way as men, hardwired to seek out the heat and completion they lacked in their own physiology. Nothing short of vampiric, they were described as pursuing men with an insatiable and frightening desire.

So, if the Madonna was the ideal, and the Whore was the uncomfortable reality, then where did Mary Magdalene sit? Arguably, Mary’s sin was so enduring in medieval legends because it is her very sin that allows her to bridge the gap between these two stereotypical versions of womanhood.

Repentant Mary Magdalene, found in the Collection of the Art History Museum, Vienne. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Repentant Mary Magdalene, found in the Collection of the Art History Museum, Vienne. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

It is as important in medieval legends that Mary was redeemed as that she was sinful – you can’t, of course, have the redemption without the sin. Medieval writers did seem to be invested in the idea that all women are sinful, and many used their depictions of Mary Magdalene to explore and cement this idea. However, they were also very interested in her movement from sin to sainthood, because this conversion made her the ideal role model for other fallen women. In the various medieval legends, Mary Magdalene converts to Christianity, leaves her life of sin behind and follows God in a life of spiritual perfection, from preaching to contemplation. Her conversion is all the more spectacular because her sin prior to that conversion was so great. In this way, Mary acts as the bridge between the Madonna and the whore, offering an aspirational model for sinful Christian women everywhere.

Written records certainly suggest that various writers and thinkers treated Mary Magdalene in this way. In the 13th century, the French cardinal Eudes de Chateauroux explained: “For through her example, she is instruction for us. She teaches what we sinners ought to do […] with bitter laments and tears, having cast off all human shame she sought forgiveness.” The cardinal believed that Mary led by example – and her particular, sinful example is much easier to relate to than a vision of perfection.

A scene from ’Othello’ by William Shakespeare, published in 1622. The play “seems to have been influenced by Anglo-Moroccan relations that reached their high point in the summer of 1600,” writes Brotton. (Culture Club/Getty Images)

The English mystic Margery Kempe (c1373–c1438), who was famous for her visions of Christ which resulted in overwhelming fits of crying, frequently used Mary Magdalene as a role model. Before deciding to dedicate her life to God and take a vow of chastity, Margery had been a married woman – so she could not emulate the virginal mother of God. However, in Mary Magdalene she could find aspiration. In one of her visions, Christ supposedly comforted Margery by reminding her of Mary Magdalene: “I make the worthy unworthy and I make the sinful righteous,” he told her. In the figure of Mary Magdalene, both the cardinal and the mystic find hope that they have the power to choose a holier path, and that their sins – whether they are everyday misdemeanours or something much more serious – can be forgiven. 

Mary, why weepest thou?

These are the words which Jesus speaks to Mary Magdalene in the Gospel, when she mistakes him for the gardener. She is mourning his death but her tears quickly turn to pure joy when she realises who she is actually speaking to. And her tears give another clue as to why medieval writers were invested in the idea of Mary as a reformed sinner. They feed into a trend of the later Middle Ages that may also help to explain the endurance of Pope Gregory’s error: affective piety.

A painting titled ‘Noli Me Tangere’ in which Christ reveals himself to Mary Magdalene. Noli me tangere, which translates as “do not touch me” or “do not cling to me” is the Latin version of words spoken, according to John 20:17, by Jesus to Mary Magdalene when she recognised him after his resurrection. Held in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
A painting titled ‘Noli Me Tangere’ in which Christ reveals himself to Mary Magdalene. Noli me tangere, which translates as “do not touch me” or “do not cling to me” is the Latin version of words spoken, according to John 20:17, by Jesus to Mary Magdalene when she recognised him after his resurrection. Held in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Affective piety was a devotional craze which was often targeted at women. By focusing on the human nature of Christ, as well as his divinity, medieval Christians could feel more of an emotional connection with him, and thus deepen their piety. As part of this devotion, a new genre of writing called ‘Passion meditation’ became very popular, particularly in the 13th and 14th centuries. Passion meditations not only described events from the life and death of Christ but, crucially, they also encouraged readers to imagine themselves present at the scene. This might be as a bystander, a witness to the suffering of Christ. But it might also be as an active participant. Readers were sometimes urged to run up to Christ and wipe his brow to relieve his suffering, or to kneel at the cross with the other faithful mourners.

Mary Magdalene by Jan van Scorel (1495–1562), c1530. From the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Holland. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
Mary Magdalene by Jan van Scorel (1495–1562), c1530. From the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Holland. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

This kind of devotion was supposed to prompt an emotional response; readers were coaxed to shed tears as if they were watching Christ’s suffering right before their very eyes. Mary Magdalene, who mourned at the cross with Christ’s mother, was one of the only named women in the Gospels that female readers could focus on when practising this kind of devotion. They could imagine accompanying Mary Magdalene, seeing the scene through her eyes and sharing in her joy at Christ’s resurrection – as well as her sorrow at his suffering and death. And because Mary is a sinner, she provides a human and relatable model as well as an emotional one. She was someone who, according to the medieval legends, had sinned but who was still favoured by Christ. When it came to encouraging affective piety and participation in Passion meditation, then, Mary Magdalene was the perfect role model.

So, while the medieval legends of Mary Magdalene are certainly misogynistic (hinging as they do on the idea that all women have a proclivity to sexual sin), they can also be seen in a more progressive light. The medieval church forbade women from preaching, and yet the accounts of Mary offered a female role model who spreads God’s word far and wide, to both men and women alike – perhaps an inspiration for those women who did manage to find a way to bend the rules and to carry the Christian message.

Mary was an ordinary woman who had managed to find spiritual greatness, who had battled the sin that was inherent within her and won. She gave sinners everywhere hope for forgiveness.

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Hetta Howes is a lecturer in medieval literature at City, University of London and a BBC/ Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) New Generation Thinker, researching women and water in the Middle Ages.