Jane May Programme Director of the Woolger Institute examines the tradition, myth and mystery surrounding the Magdalene in the heart of France
In a remote part of Burgundy in southern France relics, said to be the bones of Mary Magdalene, encased in an elaborate gilt casket, are carried aloft in a cloud of incense up a sacred hill to the Basilica that bears her name. The crowds are composed of nuns, priests, local people and pilgrims en route to Compostela. Is this the Middle Ages or a much earlier epoch? No, the ritual is performed each year on the Magdalene’s Saint’s Day on 22 July.
In medieval times these relics were so important that Vézelay, as described above, was among the greatest pilgrimage centres in France, housing hundreds of travellers daily. It was a powerful, wealthy place, visited not only by those in search of spiritual insights, but by powerful men such as Thomas Becket and royal figures including England’s Richard 1, whose soldiers heard Bernard of Clairvaux preach the Second Crusade against the ‘infidel’ in the field behind the Basilica.
Today, it is as popular as ever, a World Heritage site, a centre for art and culture. The appeal and mystery of Mary Magdalene has not, evidently, diminished.
A living legend
Meanwhile, in Provence legends and myths of the Magdalene are also very much alive. Lacordaire, Archbishop of Paris, who wrote a well-known ‘life’ of the saint, said in 1860: ‘One cannot set foot on the soil of Provence without encountering at every step the memory of Ste. Marie Magdalene.’ Sites around Marseilles associated with her remain popular, including the remote grotto at St Baume, and the other reputed resting place of her bones at St Maximin-la-Ste-Baume. At Les Stes- Maries-de-la-Mer, that mysterious town in the remote vastnesses of the Camargue, legend tells of the arrival of the Magdalene and her companions by boat from the Holy Land.
The companions included the black servant Martha, Ste Sara, whose image in the crypt of this church remains a pilgrimage destination, nota- bly by the Gitane gipsy people; also Martha who, it is accepted, had a local ministry that included subduing the fierce dragon (or ‘tarasque’) at Tarascon. Mary herself is still venerated in Provence as a teacher and preacher in her own right.
As James Pope-Hennessy wrote in his excellent book Aspects of Provence:1 ‘The important point….is not whether…personages mentioned in the gospels made or did not make the journey to Marseilles by boat, but that the people of Provence believed for centuries that they had done so, and that this area of Southern France, in many ways so pagan, has absorbed the stories of these saints into its daily life.’
Her sacred sites – earth, sea and sky
Many portraits show the Magdalene in a darkened cave, a single source of illumi- nation highlighting her contemplation of a ‘memento mori’ – usually a skull. At Vézelay, the place of true veneration lies not in the main body of the church but the numinous cave-depths of the ancient crypt. (The bear goddess Artemis inhab ited caves in neolithic times.) Caves are places of the incubation of new life – just as Christ arose in resurrection from the tomb. The Black Madonna in the crypt at Chartres is called ;Our Lady Beneather the Earth’ – but she was also known by the Druids as the Virgini pariturae or ‘The virgin who is about to give birth’.
In art the Magdalene’s gown is typically green and red, colours of incarnation. In the iconography of the Orthodox Church, she often holds a red egg, symbolising resurrection or the blood of Christ.
The colour green is associated with the growth of fresh life, the ‘greening’ of Imbolc/Candlemas; in Marseilles, at the Abbaye St Victor, each February the Black Virgin is still brought out of the crypt in a procession above the sea, with participants carrying green candles – a ceremony with further strong echoes of the emergence of Persephone from the underworld…..
The Grail Maiden by Dante Rossetti, 1874. Considered to show Mary Magdalene, with a dove symbolising the Holy Spirit
Fountains dedicated to the Magdalene are common; at Vezélay one lies at the base of the hill beneath which lies caves and, reputedly, a huge underground reservoir. A short distance away in the Valley is an older pre-Gallo-Roman healing water sanctuary; close by is a huge ancient healing temple site at the Source of the Seine, whence the beautiful statue of the water goddess Sequana (travelling in her boat!) was excavated. Other sacred water-sources abound in Burgundy and a strong local water cult with documented rites and rituals, many of them relating to healing or fertility, endured here well into the 19th century.2 The very spot that sheltered the Magdalene in her meditations at La Ste Baume is also linked with a sacred water-source; her cave-shrine in the mountains, which can be visited after an ambitious climb, lies in a dripping grotto and the statue within it is more like that of a water-maiden than a Saint. (Those who have seen both sites may note a similarity to the modern goddess statue at the source of the Seine.)
There is a strong water association in the Stres-Maries-De-la-Mer story; local patisseries sell little pastries called ‘navettes’ (little boats), a remembrance of the arrival of the ‘Sea-bourne Maries’.
At the gypsy festival associated with Ste Sara, the statue of Sara is carried into the sea to be blessed.
The Magdalene’s urn is also filled with a healing liquid; she used her hair to wipe the (wetted) feet of Christ… Christos means ‘anointed one’. In archetypal terms, the great waters of the Divine Feminine are a place of regeneration and renewal, and may also represent the vast sea of the unconscious.
Magdalene sites often lie on a sacred hill- top such as Vézelay (known in France as ‘La Colline Eternelle’ or the Eternal Hill) or the extraordinary wild, semi-moun- tainous heights near Marseille where, according to legend, she spent time in her cave as a hermit, whence she was raised daily by angels to the lofty heights above La Ste Baume.
Where the extraordinary, enigmatic statues of Black Madonnas are to be found in France, Christian churches and chapels dedicated to the Magdalene on heights or hilltops are often found close by. These curious, powerful Black Madonnas echo in their form and character earlier incarnations of the Divine Feminine – some are elongated and elegant, recalling Isis; others clearly are of African origin (sometimes known locally as ‘the Egyptian’).
The choice of elevated Magdalene Chapel sites in these locations may be an instinct to absorb or benefit from the power of the earlier ‘Earth Goddess’ by a Christian ‘Sky Goddess’ site; alternatively, it is thought that many of the hill- side caves associated with the Magdalene may have connections with a previous cult of Sun worship.
The Madonnas and the Magdalene share two striking qualities. First, they still hold the strong love and devotion of local people, who preserve the traditions associated with them and recognise their power. Secondly, they continue to exert powerful influence as an inspiration of individual worship and vision, being undoubtedly enablers of what Michael Baigent, at a retreat near Conques, once elegantly called ‘unmediated experiences of the Divine’. For this reason it is unsurprising that so many Black Madonnas have been stolen, or imprisoned in the more strictly regulated environments of Cathedral treasuries and museums.
A woman for all seasons – the archetype of the Magdalene
Just as the stories of the Holy Grail exist vibrantly outside orthodox Christian writings, the limited textual knowledge we have of Mary from the New Testament or Gnostic texts has not pre- vented the flourishing of not only a strong oral tradition, but also a truly remarkably rich number of artworks with her as subject. These stories and images of the Magdalene have a life of their own; over time her archetype has shown an extraordinary flexibility in its response to the current zeitgeist.
In her perceptive book entitled Mary Magdalen,3 Susan Haskins gives a taste
of some of the many characters assigned to Mary, including ‘The Companion of the Saviour’; the ‘Apostola Apostolorum’ (which may be translated as Apostle to the Apostles); the ‘Beata Peccatrix’ (blessed sinner), and ‘The Weeper’. The fluid artistic responses to her character (‘Mistress, Mrs or Myth?’ as Timothy Freke4 beautifully expressed it!) clearly reflect this variety – a spectrum so extraordinary that they could be seen to encompass the life of every woman.
They range from the mysterious, silver seductress of Girolamo Savaldo to the semi-erotic (verging on the pornographic in times of repression, offering an opportunity to explore women’s sexuality under the ‘respectable’ guise of religious art), largely Victorian (involving large amounts of flesh, self-laceration and orgasmic expression!), to the mystic, contemplative figure of Rogier van der Weyden; other artists focus on a contemplative figure in the numinous surroundings of her cave, accompanied by a skull or memento mori. Each reflects a unique perception of women of that generation and their perceived religious or spiritual role.
It appears that over the passage of time we are happy to revise Mary’s image in the light of our own prejudices and world-view – for the Victorians she was the fallen woman and for our own time
(through the insights gained from such ground-breaking work as that of Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln in their powerful book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail5), the archetype of the independent, powerful woman proud to explore her own sexuality.
Echoes of the goddess
In what light can we view the flourishing continuation of the story of the Magdalene in France, where there is such a strong resonance with the arche- type of the Divine Feminine? We may perhaps take into consideration the strong French Marian tradition, as exemplified by Chartres; or maybe the ancient devotion to the Black Madonna.
Goddess archetypes of Mediterranean cultures and from further afield were abundant in Southern France, served by sea-ports such as Marseille; echoes of the goddess Isis are often detected in Black Madonna statues, also in the figure of Sara, the ‘black servant’ (possibly, Dr Roger Woolger believed, a survival in Europe of the goddess Kali-Sara). In Lyon, on the major trade route of the River Rhone, the cult of Cybele took root; further north, Gallic/Celtic goddesses, including Rosmerta, Sequana and Epona, illustrate the flourishing of the multiple forms of the Divine Feminine.
In the 11th and 12th centuries early legends about Mary Magdalene in Provence revived and a rich artistic and musical culture flourished under the influence of Eleanor of Aquitaine, nurturing, as Roger Woolger6 wrote:
‘A rich Venusian revival of old matri- focal legends and romances of Celtic mythology….Again we see the shadow of the repressed sacred feminine side of Christianity in the form of statues of the Black Madonnas and Vierges en Majeste, speaking of a lost Goddess.’
It is perhaps unsurprising that the Magdalene has found such ready acceptance and that her mythology has grown and endured so strongly in these lands or that, in seeking her where a loving intuitive tradition of reverence for her survives, we feel far closer to her ancient mysteries and the essence of the Divine Feminine.
Goddess of mutability – a truth revealed
Is the secret of Mary Magdalene’s continuing fascination and appeal in fact her notable mutability and fluidity?
It may be possible for those with vision and imagination to see many older archetypes of the goddess which Mary Magdalene has mysteriously incorporated or transmuted to make her own. Is she an Earth goddess, Water goddess or a Sky goddess? Is the secret of the long-lasting popularity and affection in which she is held indeed her own remarkable ability to adapt, mutate and embody the particular archetype that times demand? There remains a further possibility.
We live in a time when the image of the Magdalene has been freed at last from the cultural and religious vagaries of wilful misrepresentation as whore or sinner and from mistranslation of texts by those who would deny or minimize her importance; we benefit from the research, commitment and insights of modern ‘grail-seekers’ (such as Michael Baigent and colleagues, Laurence Gardner, Tim Wallace-Murphy and Roger Woolger) and scholars such as Marvin Meyer and Esther de Boer who have brought us lucid commentary and English translations of the Gnostic gospels and the recently discovered gospel attributed to her, The Gospel of Mary.7 Moreover, today we can readily visit many of her sacred sites, which bring us closer to her presence.
Thus, emerging from the mists of time, the true majesty and mystery of the Magdalene seems at last to be in the final stage of being revealed to us.
1. Pope-Hennessy J. Aspects of Provence. Penguin Travel Library, 1952.
2. Olivier L. Des Sources aux Chapelles, Academie du Morvan Bulletin, 1993, no 35.
3. Haskins S. Mary Magdalen – Myth and Metaphor. HarperCollins, London, 1993.
4. Freke T. Mistress, Mrs or Myth? recorded talk for Woolger Institute conference, 2005.
5. Baigent M, Leigh R and Lincoln H, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Jonathan Cape, 1982.
6. Woolger R. Return of the Magdalene, Caduceus, 66, Spring 2005.
7. de Boer E. The Gospel of Mary. T & T International, London, 2004.
Jane May lives in England and Burgundy; she is Programme Director of the Woolger Institute, which runs conferences, pilgrimages and other events including a pilgrimage to the Black Madonnas of the Auvergne with Caitlin Matthews in May 2015, and also ‘Healing Goddess’ tours in Burgundy. www.deepmemoryprocess.com ; email@example.com