Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor

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9780002155359: Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor

Who was Mary Magdalen? The deeper one reads into Susan Haskins' book, the less and less easy that apparently simple question becomes. To St Luke and St John, she was simply the first witness to the resurrection, the women who told the other disciples the news, but very quickly she became confused with other figures in the Gospels - like Mary of Bethany, the reformed prostitute who wiped Christ's feet with her hair - and by the time of the Gnostic gospels she was seen as the archetypal penitent sinner, the beautiful weeping woman, even the Bride of Christ. To the middle Ages she was the greatest of all saints; to the Counter-Reformation a voluptuous tempress, the figure who combined religious respectability with the scent of suppressed sexuality and submissive womanhood; to the nineteenth century she was the patron of reformed prostitutes; to the twentieth, most dramatically perhaps, the liberator of Christ's sexuality in a film such as Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ. Susan Haskins brilliantly chips away at each of these ideas to see where they came from and how attached itself to Mary Magdalen, and how the complex picture of her which we have inherited came down to us. It reads at times like a cultural detective story, but it also contains moments of comedy, sometimes high (as in the "holy thefts" of the Middle Ages, when the Magdalen's relics were whisked backwards and forwards from France to Burgundy by monks in scenes that would not disgrace an Ealing comedy), and sometimes pathetic (the prostitutes' run at Beaucaire on the Magdalen's feast day). Haskins uses evidence from painting, literature, popular myth, and early Christian writing, much of it previously obscure and the fruit of nearly ten years of archival research, to unravel the web of meanings which underpins one of the most potent and pervasive icons in Christian history. Mary Magdalen can be seen as a prism through which we can view the culture and attitudes of each of the ages which has interpreted her, and interpret them through her, as the best works of cultural history allow us to do. Particularly, it allows us to understand a great deal about how and why the Church has viewed women as it has.

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From the Back Cover:

"Mary Magdalen…is so rich a symbol that every society has adapted her to its own prejudices. Power, politics theological deceit, sexual repression and revolution have all played a part in her myth. It is this story, with its compelling lesson in the relativity of cultural perception, that is the subject of Susan Haskin's book…a book full of delights, anecdotes, observations; it exhibits a wealth of scholarship, and a passion and charm which are hard to resist."
JACKIE WULLSCHLAGER, 'Financial Times'

"Haskin's analysis of the Magdalen myth is a rich and scholar detective story, an unveiling which is at the same time a revelation. This is an intelligent book, which blends a sensitive and critical knowledge of art with theology and history. It is written with style and a delightful mocking wit, and is mercifully free of tediously inconclusive arguments about sex and gender."
ANGELA TILBY, 'Church Times'

"A sober and thoroughly researches cultural history packed with delights. It takes us on a journey Through the four Gospels, the way that the early Fathers of the Church developed views of Jesus' teaching, the history of iconography, the narratives of medieval and Renaissance poems and plays, the recently discovered and newly translated
Gnostic gospels of Nag Hammadi, Victorian photographic pornography and much more."
MICHÈLE ROBERTS, 'Independent on Sunday'

"The strengths of 'Mary Magdalen' are real and obvious. It has a bold sweep. It takes an icon of faith and sexuality and trails it through travesties and beautiful representations on canvas and in bronze…The story, let us face it, is a peculiar one: of an emblem of spiritual love so mired in eroticism that it has attracted and exposed some of the deepest confusions of religious feeling and sexual fantasy."
EAVAN BOLAND, 'Observer'

"A grave, limpid and intelligent book whose crystal-clear prose and copious illustrations make it a pleasure to read."
ANGELA LAMBERT, 'Daily Mail'

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