One of the world's most beautiful churches is found in the tiny town of Vezelay in the Burgundy region of France, one of the four original gateways to the Camino Santiago Compostela (also known in France as the Chemin de Saint Jacques) . Originally a Benedictine Abbey built in honor of the Virgin Mary, the Abbey was re-dedicated to Mary Magdalene in the tenth century when her relics were claimed to have been "transferred" there from Provence. In one version of the story, a monk from Vezelay had been "divinely instructed" to steal her bones from the rival monastery in Maximin La Saint Baume in order to keep them safe from Saracen invasions.
The two churches continue a centuries-old debate over who has the "real" relics now. If a sense of numinousity is any indication, I vote for Vezelay. This shimmering symphony in stone is bathed with a gentle golden light on sunny days, creating a luminous rosy glow everywhere you look. The simplicity of the structure is acoustically magnificent, and on most days you can hear a wonderful new monastic community, the Society of Jerusalem, singing Vespers in the early evening hours. You can hear them singing in this you tube video about the pilgrimage trail to Vezelay:
There is a long and glorious history of moving musical masterpieces written in honor of Mary Magdalene.
Today's selection is a Renaissance motet by the 16th century Spanish composer Francesco Guerrero. In addition to the celestial harmonies (exquisitely rendered here by the incomparable Tallis Scholars), one of the reason I so like this work is that remains faithful to Mary Mgdalene's actual role in the Bible rather than conflating her (as Pope Gregory's preached in the 6th century) with the Gospel of Luke's anonymous penitent sinner. The text simply recounts her appearance in the Gospel of Matthew as the courageous and loyal disciple offering an act of devotion after witnessing the horrors of the crucifixion . Translated from Latin, the lyrics read:
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary brought spices
so that they might anoint Jesus's body.
And very early on the Sabbath,
they came to the tomb,
just after sunrise. Alleluia.
Entering the tomb,
they saw a young man sitting on the right side
dressed in a white robe,
and they were amazed.
He said to them:
"You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified:
he has risen, he is not here.
Look, there is the place they laid him." Alleluia.
Enjoy, and please add your own favorite musical pieces about Mary Magdalene to the comments section below!
Today is the feastday of Saint Martha in the Lutheran, Episcopal and Catholic churches. In many traditions, Martha is the second of three siblings from Bethany: Lazarus is the older brother, Mary is the youngest sister, understood by many (though not all) denominations to be Mary Magdalene.
According to the Bible, Martha was the dedicated hostess at a gathering of the disciples. She also demonstrates great faith in Jesus in the Gospel of John. In the moving aftermath of her Lazarus's death, she proclaims upon Jesus's arrival, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died". In another early Christian scriptures, The Apocalypse of James, Martha is mentioned as one of four women who posess special wisdom and knowledge, and who are to be specially encouraged in their own ministry.
In the French tradition, the entire family arrived in Marseilles in the boat from Bethany, and each sibling set off to preach and teach in a different direction. Martha wound her way to the village of Tarascon, where she tamed a savage beast that was ravaging the city (according to medieval stories, this was "half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than an horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent"). The Golden Legend, amplifying themes to be found in the Gospel of Luke, portrays Martha as a woman of strong virtue, sober practicality and good sense who became a wise spiritual leader in her own right.
Martha is a saint in need of recovery. Too long she has languished in the shadows, diminished by the implicit criticism that while she busied herself with the household tasks, contemplative Mary "choose the better part". Teresa of Avila, with her great insight, saw Mary and Martha as being the left and right hands of each of us, that we all need to balance contemplation (which you can see Mary Magdalene embodies so beautifully in the painting by Vermeer, to the left) with action (the place which Martha holds as she prepares the meal ) and "marry the two sisters in our hearts".
In looking at images of Mary Magdalene through the centuries, what becomes clear is that she is everywoman: young, old, voluptuous, haggard, luminous or ravaged with grief, dressed in royal robes of velvet and pearls or garbed in a penitential hairshirt. I have collected more than five hundred images of paintings, stained glass works and sculptures of her. The diversity of her depictions is truly astonishing, unmatched by any other saint or archetypal figure I know of.
I was thrilled to recently discover the work of contemporary American Janet McKenzie. She is bringing forth images of Mary Magdalene as an African-American of great dignity and inner power. In doing so, the artist is reclaiming the role Magdalene originally held in early Christian communities: the Apostle to the Apostle, a spiritual teacher of profound wisdom, courage and strength.
In the painting above, Magdalene holds the red egg. In her legends in both the East and the West, Magdalene met with Emperor Tiberius after the crucifixion. As she was describing the events of the Resurrection during a banquet, the Caesar remarked, " That could no more happen than the egg you hold in your hand could turn red". The transformation of that egg is the basis of the Eastern Orthodox tradition of giving red eggs for Easter. In the image below, Magdalene comes to tell the disciples Peter and John about her experiences of the Risen Christ. Tradition tells us that John was open to receiving her message, while Peter was scoffing and dismissive, unable to believe that a woman would be the chosen vehicle of revelation. How do you think McKenzie has captured these tensions? What words would you use for her visions of Magdalene? Most importantly, what arises for you as you contemplate them?
You can find these and other inspiring images on Janet's website at http://www.janetmckenzie.com/prints.html
William Blake tells us that spiritual maturity consists of holding grief in one hand and gratitude in the other. Mary Magdalene calls us to stand in a place where we can look pain in the face AND open to profound joy. This is a practice we desperately need, for happiness without the acknowledgement of the difficulties of life can become shallow, while focusing on the suffering of life without acknowledging the beauty and sweetness there is can harden our hearts and make us depressed and bitter.
This masterwork by Georges de la Tour (1640) symbolizes the Magdalene's capacity to hold both life and death, joy and sorrow. Notice how her belly looks very pregnant, while she serenely folds her hands upon the top of the skull, her gaze steady upon the light which is brilliantly reflected in the mirror of contemplation. It is a teaching for all of us: to stay present, focused on how we can reflect the spirit of illumination, no matter what the outer circumstances. It is a teaching echoed in the Gospel of Mary, an early Christian text rediscovered in the past century and first translated in our time.
One of the most powerful meditation techniques I know is the Grief and Gratitude walk. This can be done either in nature or on a labyrinth. On the way to your destination ( in the labyrinth, this would be the center), try carrying a stone that signifies all the grief you have borne in your life. When you arrive, see if you can leave the stone behind as a symbol of releasing the pain you have experienced. On the way back, try to call to mind with each and every step a person, place or event that has given you beauty, depth, meaning, or showered you with tenderness, compassion or kindness. It is amazing what you will remember. I hope you will share your stories in the "comments" below!
This riveting painting by Juseppe di Ribera (1611) vividly underscores the idea of Magdalene as a woman who was able to hold the reality of death, here symbolized by a skull. All the gospel stories place her at the foot of the cross, faithfully witnessing the suffering of Jesus in his last hours. In the Benedictine tradition that springs from the Cassianite roots of La Baume, monks craft their own coffin to use as a writing desk upon entering the monastery. This keeps their motto "Memento mori" ("remember the you will die") vividly before them. In the 17th century, Capuchin monks in Rome constructed a chapel made of the bones of the monks who had gone before them, with the inscription, "What you are today, we once were. What we are today, you will become" (see below) . In one Tibetan Buddhist tradition, initiates drink from a skull as part of religious ceremonies. While our modern Western world is often repulsed by such startling images, they underscore a powerful perennial teaching: wisdom is born by confronting the reality of our mortality. If you knew you only had one year or one month to live, how would that change your choices? Would you be able to appreciate every taste, touch, sound, sight of love and beauty more?
There are two sites in France that claim the relics of Mary Magdalene. In Provence, the Cathedral of St. Maximin has enshrined a rather spooky looking skull in the crypt below the church. Once a year in July, the relics are taken out, covered with a gentler looking mask of a serene golden maiden and paraded through the town streets in a procession with flowers and music. The culmination of the festivities is a candlelit celebration in the cathedral where young girls garbed in traditional costumes distribute blessed bread to the chanting congregation.
This image, part of Giotto's fresco cycle of the Life of Magdalene at the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, depicts the arrival of the Boat from Bethany. The Medieval Aurea Legenda (Golden Legend), from which Giotto drew his script, tells the story of how after the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene and her family and companions were set adrift on a rudderless boat. They arrived in southern France (center of a thriving Jewish community at the time) and began to teach and preach, each disciple eventually dispersing to lead congregations in different cities.
The story lingers on in Provence not only in art and legend, but also in food. The delicious, buttery navette cookie is baked in the shape of this rudderless boat and eaten on the feast days of all the saints who travelled together.
This fresco by Giotto (1266-1337) depicts the legend of Mary Magdalene's life in Provence after the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Tradition tells us that here at La Baume Mary Magdalene was lifted up from her meditation cave to the top of the mountain seven times a day to be fed by manna from heaven and the music of the angels.
In 415 AD, the great theologian John Cassian arrived at La Baume from the desert of Egypt. He established the first double monastery for men and women in France, dedicated to guarding the relics of the Magdalene. It was during his time in France that Cassian wrote his celebrated works on the spiritual life which are considered foundational in both the Eastern Orthodox tradition and Benedictine monasticism, the Institutes and the Conferences. In these perceptive and influential books, he advocated the chanting of psalms seven times a day as a way of tuning the human soul to the divine. Was this connected to the earlier legends of Magdalene and the angels at La Baume? Could be. The connection between these two pivotal figures is strengthened by the placement of their feast days: July 22 is dedicated to Mary Magdalene and the following day, July 23, honors John Cassian.
I was thrilled to learn this summer that the feastday of Mary Magdalene was more like a feastweek in France during the Middle Ages. For five days, pilgrims would sing, dance, light candles, process up the mountain of La Baume and hold special parades and meals in celebration of my favorite saint. In honor of that Provencal tradition of abundance , I will be offering up a collection of little amuse bouches for the next twenty-two days: tales of paintings, songs, legends and lore related to Mary Magdalene.
This painting is one of my favorites, perhaps because it reminds me the most of my cherished daughter, Anissa. The gentleness of Mary's gaze and her dreamy far off look bring a rush of serenity to my own heart when I behold it ( try looking at it by candlelight, and the effect will be heightened considerably!)
It was painted by the great early Italian Renaissance master Fra Angelico as part of an altarpiece in Cortona, Italy in 1437. The great Dominican artist was a man of deep devotion: legend claims that he would fast for an entire day before beginning a work of this magnitude, and that he would place himself in an almost trance-like prayer before he began, chanting "Veni Sancte Spiritus" over and over as he applied the pigment to the wood, an act of supplication that he hoped would infuse his works with the Holy Spirit.
May the work of all our lives and hands be so saturated with grace and beauty!