Saints of the Day – Mary Magdalene

Saint Mary Magdalen holy card in which she holds her alabaster jar of oil, from the painting 'Magdalene', by Carlo Dolci, 1665-1670, oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina, Florence, ItalyArticle

1st century; feast of her translation, especially in the Eastern Church, is May 4. Saint Mary Magdalene, the “Apostle to the Apostles,” was the first to encounter the Risen Jesus. Just when it seems the real Mary Magdalene is revealed in Scripture, there are questions. She is further obscured by the legends that surround her following the Resurrection. There is a considerable difference of opinion, particularly between the exegetes of the East and the West as to the identity of Mary Magdalene.

Largely due to the influence of Saint Gregory the Great’s writings, the Western liturgies have identified her with the unnamed sinner (Luke 7:36ff; cf. Luke 8:2) and Mary of Bethany, the sister of Saints Lazarus and Martha (see John 11). There is also a third Mary, who came from Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee near Tiberias in Judea. This is the woman from whom Jesus “had cast out seven devils” (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2). She was one of the women present at Calvary and was the first to witness the Resurrection, which Jesus told her to announce to the disciples.

In the opinion of the Eastern liturgists (and the venerable opinion of Saint Ambrose), there are three different people, and it certainly seems doubtful that Mary of Bethany and Mary the Sinner were the same person. Or does it?

Modern scholars do not believe they are the same woman because there is the question of the two different origins (Bethany and Magdala). But it has been suggested that if they are identical, it would be easier to explain why three adults siblings were living together without their spouses. If Mary of Bethany is the sinful woman (assumed to be a prostitute or whore) and her brother and sister took her in after she repented, they would be considered tainted.

Nevertheless, the Eastern tradition of the repentant woman, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene being three different women has been adopted in the revised Roman calendar of 1969.

However, it is very probable that after the repentance of Mary the Sinner, she should have followed Jesus to the last and have been present at the Crucifixion. Such, at any rate, is the belief of the many faithful who have venerated her as the classic example of the repentant woman who was forgiven by Jesus and who thereafter followed and served him.

Mary Magdalene, the woman exorcised of seven devils, ministered to the Lord in Galilee (Luke 8:2) and was among the women at the Crucifixion (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25). With Joanna and Mary, the mother of James, and Salome, she discovered the empty tomb and heard the angelic announcement of the resurrection of Christ (Matt. 28:1ff; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-10). She was the first person to see Christ later that same day (Matt. 28:9; Mark 16:9), to which Saint John (20:1-18) adds the moving account that the Master gave her a message to deliver to the brethren.

According to an ancient Eastern tradition, Mary Magdalene accompanied John and the Blessed Virgin to Ephesus, where she died and was buried. One of the tales of the Middle Ages was that she was betrothed to Saint John the Evangelist when Jesus called him, and that in anger “gave herself to all delight.” Jesus, not wishing to damn her when the cause of her behavior was his calling of Saint John, converted her to penance.

A later pious legend in the West tells of her travelling to Provence, France, with Martha, Lazarus, and others to evangelize Gaul. These sources hold that she spent the last 30 years of her life in a cavern of La Sainte-Baume in the Maritime Alps, and was miraculously transported just before her death to the Chapel of Saint-Maximin, from whom she received the last sacraments and by whom she was buried at Aix.

Her relics have been claimed by various places at various times, but none of the stories can be authenticated. Saint Willibald is said to have seen her tomb in Ephesus in the 8th century. Vézelay (France) has claimed her relics since the 11th century (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Farmer, White).

In art, Mary Magdalene’s emblem is a jar of ointment and she always has long hair. Among the scenes that may be portrayed, she is shown (1) wiping Christ’s feet at the house of Simon; (2) anointing Him at Bethany; (3) with Martha [Caravaggio’s painting]; (4) with Martha at the raising of Lazarus from the dead; (5) clinging to the foot of the Cross; (6) kissing or anointing Christ’s feet at the Lamentation; (7) with the other two Marys at the tomb; (8) at His feet at Noli me Tangere (do not touch me) [view Fra Angelico’s, Correggio’s or Alonso Cani’s versions]; (9) casting aside her jewels in the presence of Christ; (10) wringing her hands and spurning jewels; (11) weeping; (12) penitent in the desert with long hair and an ointment jar; (13) with Saint Mary of Egypt; (14) old and haggard, clad only in her long hair; (15) uplifted by angels at the canonical hours; or (16) in various scenes of shipwreck with Martha and Lazarus on their way to Marseilles (Roeder).

Because Mary Magdalene is described as weeping at Jesus’ tomb on Easter Sunday, she is often portrayed in art as weeping, or with eyes red from having wept. This is the source of the English word “maudlin,” meaning “effusively or tearfully sentimental.” There is a Magdalene College at Oxford and a Magdalene College at Cambridge (different spelling), both pronounced “Maudlin.”

Saint Mary Magdalene is especially venerated in Marseilles, Saint Maximin le Sainte-Baume, and Vézelay, France (Roeder). She is the patron of repentant sinners and of the contemplative life (Farmer).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 20 July 2020. Web. 3 August 2020. <>