Mary Magdalene by Adriana Valerio

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Translated by Wendy Wheatley

Reviewed by Harriet

Adriana Valerio is an Italian historian and theologian. One of the first women in Italy to be awarded a theology degree, she has spent thirty years researching and interpreting the role of women in the history of Christian theology. In this, her most recent book (published in Italian in 2020), she turns her attention to someone who, she convincingly argues, is the most misunderstood figure in the Christian story. The book is subititled ‘Women, the Church, and the Great Deception’, the great deception being the way theologians, theological writings and artists have falsely represented Mary Magdalene as a the quintessential repentant sinner, a figure combining sensual beauty with abject humility. However, as Valerio points out, the  canonical gospels never describe her in this way: ‘what they do say is that she was a disciple and apostle’. This book is an exploration of how this misinterpretation came into being, and in doing so goes to what Valerio sees as the heart of the matter:

The case of the Magdalene informs the very identity of Christianity because it poses crucial questions about the role of women in the Church, about the male monopoly over the theological and doctrinal patrimony, and about institutional bodies that have contributed historically to the marginalization of women. 

The book starts with a primary question: Who was the Magdalene? Valerio points out that though women are mentioned in the gospels, it is usually in a generic or anonymous way. Mary Magdalene alone appears by name throughout, a sign that she was an important figure among the disciples. She seems to have been an independent woman, and thus free to follow Jesus’s itinerant preaching, though it’s not possible to tell if she was married or widowed or single. Many interpretations of her name have been suggested, none of them proven. In Luke’s gospel she is said to be ‘the woman from whom seven demons had gone out’: Valerio suggests this may refer to a form of mental illness, but not to sins, as many have believed. It is certainly true that she held a significant place among the disciples, being one of the few at the foot of the cross, together with his mother. Here she is referred to as ‘the disciple he loved’. In John’s gospel, she is depicted as crying outside the empty tomb, and then being the sole witness of ‘the Risen One’, an emotive encounter. In the Gnostic texts, however, she has a decidedly important role: in ‘The Gospel of Mary’ (2nd century) she appears as a mediator between Jesus and the male disciples, who are shown to be jealous of her closeness to the master. An early 3rd-century text depicts her as the favourite disciple of all, who poses 67 questions to the risen Christ and who best understands his message. Although these are relatively late texts, they show that a strong tradition existed as to her apostolic role. But, as Valerio goes on to say, ‘as the Great Church established itself, the figure of Mary Magdalene became subject to misrepresentation and reduction’. The rest of the book traces the way in which this happened.

It all began in the Middle Ages, when ‘Slowly but surely, her role as an apostle was diminished by superimposing the image of the penitent sinner’. This seems to have been a result of confusing her with other female figures in the gospels. She was increasing portrayed as a figure of redemption, and became the patron saint of prostitutes (and hairdressers). Her importance as an apostle was recognised in the Renaissance by female writers and mystics, but visual art from that period on tended to portray her in a different way:

Many times, Mary Magdalene is portrayed alone in pictures that make explicit her character of provocative sensuality, sometimes painting her naked (Titian), other times showing her in comely, elegant poses (see Artemisia Gentelischi). The interpretation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in his pen drawing ‘Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee’ (1858) is original and impactful. He accentuates her ambiguity, portraying her as sensual yet spiritual even before her encounter with Jesus.

There is no doubt, as Valerio argues, that ‘after the Virgin Mary, the Magdalene is the best loved and most depicted figure’, whether she is seen as a lover friend and companion or as a bringer of knowledge and spiritual redemption.

In the final chapter, ‘The Magdalene Beyond the Magdalene’, Valerio states that her purpose in this book is not only to show the importance of Magdalene as a historical figure: in addition, she wants to draw attention to the need to interrogate the dynamics of gender in the established church, and ‘the exclusion of women from the apostolic succession and from decision-making roles in the Church’. The Magdalene’s false identification as a repentant prostitute, she argues, led to ‘the demonization of female sexuality and sensuality’ and the view that the female body is impure. Thus, she concludes,

The case of Mary Magdalene must be inserted in the broader analysis of the presence of women in the history of  Christianity in view of a reconstruction of relationship models that are more appropriate for an inclusive Church that is in accordance with the liberating practice of Jesus.

The book concludes with a section on further reading, almost all of it in Italian. A quick search on Amazon reveals that many other books about Mary Magdalene have been published in English; perhaps most notably Cynthia Bourgeault’s 2010 The Meaning of Mary Magdalene. However this one is definitely a welcome contribution to a long-standing debate, and Valerio’s arguments are convincing. The book is translated from Italian by Wendy Wheatley, and I have to say I found it a little clunky at times. But this doesn’t spoil enjoyment of the book, which makes a valuable contribution to feminist literary and ecclesiastical history.

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Harriet is one of the founders and editors of Shiny New Books.

Adriana Valerio, Mary Magdalene: Women, the Church, and the Great Deception, trans. Wendy Wheatley (Europa, 2021). 978-1787703421, 196pp., paperback original.

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