March is upon us, and that means . . . Women’s History Month!
This year, the Women’s Center plans to celebrate Women’s History Month with some reflections on significant women in church history, and some exploration of women’s activities and initiatives that have been part of the history of the church down through the ages.
Appropriate because Mary Magdalene, first among the “myrrh-bearing women” commemorated by the Orthodox church on the second Sunday after Easter, was traditionally identified as the first apostle, or “apostle to the apostles.” Because of her role in the proclamation of the resurrection, and legends of her subsequent proclamation of the gospel, she was initially an image of women’s preaching and leadership in the church. Thus the consideration of Mary of Magdala may also be an appropriate beginning point for a celebration of Women’s History Month, because of the way this prominent woman of the early church also fell victim to dramatic revisionist recollection that tended to erase her leadership role and equate her with her sexuality, as she was conflated with other women mentioned in Scripture, and was ultimately identified — now, it is thought, wrongly — as a prostitute. [See Heidi Schlumpf, “Who Framed Mary Magdalene?” U.S. Catholic, April 1, 2000]
[Perhaps ironically, recent preoccupation with Mary Magdalene, a consequence of her role in The Da Vinci Code, also emphasizes her sexuality — this time, reproductive — to the exclusion of her roles as a disciple or devotee of Christ, or her leadership in the early Christian community.]
While many of the details of Mary Magdalene’s personal history are disputed, or attributed to legend, the impact of the figure of Mary Magdalene on western art history is indisputable. She appears in every major visual art form (fresco, painting in every medium, sculpture – both freestanding and architectural decoration, mosaic . . .) across the full sweep of the western artistic tradition, and is an icon of the eastern tradition as well. The depiction of Mary Magdalene, a more sexualized counterpart to the Virgin Mother of God, thus acts as a window into the shifting imagination of femininity as it articulates with theology and piety. For a lengthy discussion of historic and contemporary representations, linked to theological content, see the reflection on the exhibition “Mary Magdalene: One Woman, Many Images” at http://www.kuleuven.be/thomas/secundair_onderwijs/in_de_kijker/44_mmEng.php; for a sampling of Magdalenic art, see Mary Magdalene: History, Legend, and Art
Those who want to “read more about it” might want to check out:
evidence for Mary’s connection with the ancient city of Magdala, at The Magdala Project
archaeological evidence associated with the veneration of Mary Magdalene’s relics, in Bruce Chilton, “Three Graves of Mary Magdalene,” Museum International, August 2010
an analysis of the changing fortunes of Mary Magdalene in western representation, in Ingrid Maisch, Mary Magdalene: the image of a woman through the centuries (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998)
Finally, a classy video version of the legend of the red egg and the conversion of the court of Roman Emperor Tiberius through Mary Magdalene’s preaching, with cello accompaniment and graphics by Nicholas Roerig, is accessible on Youtube.