A Mythology of Sexual Sin

Mary Magdalene’s legacy is not her own.

We know very little about the real Mary Magdalene. We know she came from Magdala, a village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. She was the most trusted companion of Jesus and the first to witness his resurrection. Hell, she was probably his financial backer. She is heralded as the ‘apostle to apostles’ and considered the most popular female saint, after the Virgin Mary. However, medieval painters and theologians preferred to emphasise her alleged history of sex work. Mary’s image as the ‘penitent prostitute’ was fashioned to uphold the Catholic Church’s lessons on redemption and female sexuality as sin – an omnipresent warning of the evils of female seduction.

The truth of the Magdalen’s real persona was obscured by Pope Gregory the Great. In a medieval sermon, Pope Gregory conflated three women from the New Testament: Mary of Magdala who Jesus freed from “seven demons” (Luke 8:2); the unnamed “sinful woman” who bathed Christ’s feet with her tears (Luke 7:37–50); and Mary of Bethany, the contemplative sister of Lazarus and Martha. Although the nature of Mary’s “seven demons” is notindicated in the Bible, Pope Gregory interpreted them as literal representations of the seven deadly sins. Unsurprisingly, he emphasised the sins of lust and sexual looseness. Theologians assumed Mary’s sins to be sexual because, as Professor Danielle C. Dubois says, “all feminine sin was expressed sexually” in medieval Europe. So, Mary Magdalene was cast as a reformed prostitute. In all likelihood, her ‘demonic possession’ actually references a chronic and violent nervous disorder.

This image of Mary Magdalene as a ‘penitent prostitute’ demonised female sexuality. As one of the most prominent conversion tales in the Bible, her popular image displaces sexual sin onto women and presents feminine sexuality as “the greatest evil”. This paradigm is sustained in other works of medieval literature, like the legend of Mary of Egypt. In Sophronius’s seventh-century Greek text, Mary is a prostitute who does not accept payment and is condemned for enticing men into sin. Her male partners are blameless.

Feminist critic Elizabeth Cady Stanton denounces biblical stories that teach that “woman brought sin and death into the world.” Biblical tales were used to legitimise gender roles and power structures in medieval society. Through misrepresenting the image of Mary Magdalene, the early Church Fathers cemented a reminder of female sinfulness in the Church and wielded the Bible as a tool to oppress women. However, Mary Magdalene also symbolises female empowerment and agency. Her privileged position at the right hand of Christ is undeniable. The other disciples were jealous when Jesus kissed Mary on the mouth, asking, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” (Philip 35, 36 40). Christ replied that he loves her most because she is not blinded by the light. Her eminence confused the art world. Male painters in the 16th century depicted her as a half-being covered in fur. Baffled by her elevated status, they regarded this woman as some inexplicable beast.

Perhaps we find a more fitting tribute in L’Eglise de Madeleine, the Parisian church honouring the Magdalen from which ‘Madeleine’ derives. Or, perhaps not. The Church’s celebration of Mary’s devotion did not extend to the everyday woman. Female churchgoers were banned from the choir until Chopin requested Mozart’s Requiem be played at his funeral in 1849. The arrangement required soprano female voices. So, the church relented and permitted women to sing… from behind a black curtain. The irony could not be clearer. Surely, no other patriarchal misuse of Mary Magdalene’s legacy can compete?

Enter, the Magdalene Laundries. These asylums functioned as penitentiary work houses for ‘fallen women’. As the Toronto Laundries neatly stated in 1858, they aimed to “[eliminate] prostitution by rehabilitating prostitutes”. In reality, these women were unmarried mothers involuntarily committed by their family or the Church. They laboured for their lifetimes in hazardous, solitary, over-crowded and often abusive conditions. A mass grave of 155 corpses was discovered in Dublin in 1993, three years before the final asylum closed in 1996 – just two years before I was born.

It took years to correct the misuse of Mary Magdalene’s name. The Catholic Church officially overruled Pope Gregory’s interpretation in 1969. In 2001, the Irish government recognized the Magdalene Laundries as abusive institutions, offering a formal apology and a $82 million compensation scheme.

Today, the Magdalen’s enigmatic image – a simultaneously repentant prostitute, celibate nun, revered saint and empowered mystic – continues to intrigue society. Recent interpretations in The Da Vinci Code (2003) and Mary Magdalene (2018) have bolstered her popularity and encouraged feminists to re-write her narrative. Is this a step towards a divine narrative for women in the Church? Or are we better served by arenas like astrology? Regardless, millennial women are determined to revitalise spirituality. I hereby nominate Mary Magdalene to be our patron saint.

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