The ever-shifting form of Mary Magdalene

The Magdalene in the Reformation
by Margaret Arnold, OUP, 312pp, £25

Who is Mary Magdalene? Is she Apostola Apostolorum, the first to proclaim the risen Christ? Is she the penitent sinner, a former prostitute whose encounter with Jesus led to a transformation of her life that makes her a paradigm of repentance? Is she the one who sat at the feet of her Lord while Mary did the serving, offering a feminine model for contemplators of divine mysteries? Or is she the hidden wife of Jesus who bore him descendants who would go on to rule France and hide the Holy Grail?

Setting aside preposterous conspiracy theories, Mary Magdalene has been understood by Christians through the centuries as all of the others, therefore offering various models of holiness within the Church, especially – but not only – for women. In this fascinating and thoroughly researched book, Margaret Arnold explores the ways in which the various reformation movements within western Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries had an impact upon the reception of the figure of the Magdalene. Or, it might be truer to say, she uses Mary Magdalene as a tool with which to learn more about how the beginnings of modernity changed attitudes, both among ordinary Christians and among the leaders of the Church, towards justification and personal sanctity, towards the preaching of the Gospel and towards the place(s) of women among the people of God.

Arnold necessarily begins her work with an overview of how Mary Magdalene had been perceived, proclaimed and proposed to the faithful in the medieval period, and she shows how flexible a figure she was.

Interestingly, there was always strong emphasis on her preaching role, in a world where it often seems that female voices were obscured – but this book shows just how much more complicated things were than that. Other emphases, though, waxed and waned according to purpose. It was actually before the emergence of Luther that controversy arose about Mary Magdalene: two years before the 95 theses were nailed to the doors of Wittenberg Cathedral, the French scholar Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples proposed that the character who witnessed the crucifixion and later visited the tomb had no connection with the sister of Mary, nor with the notorious sinner who anointed Jesus’s feet, nor even with the woman explicitly named Mary Magdalene in Luke “from whom he had cast out seven demons”. The composite figure created by Christian tradition has no basis in Scripture or in history, however spiritually fruitful it may have been.

It is of considerable interest, therefore, that this foreshadowing of post-Enlightenment historical-critical scepticism, which owes so much to the Protestant Reformation, should have been almost entirely overlooked in the intervening centuries, as much among Protestants as among Catholics. Indeed, as Arnold goes on to explore the variety of ways in which Mary was understood through the next two centuries, it becomes clear that they cannot be neatly divided into Catholic and Protestant. Both sides continued to appropriate the figure of the Magdalene in many and various forms. For example, for Luther himself the role of Mary as first proclaimer of the Resurrection provided material for a critique of the Catholic understanding of the priesthood, but it in no way offered a justification for opening the pastoral or preaching ministries to women.

Meanwhile, among lay women, Catholic and Protestant alike, Mary Magdalene continued to offer models of sanctity: Anna van Schurman, a Dutch-German Protestant scholar, saw the sister of Martha as a model of the female academic.

She was presented in the same way to Mary Tudor by her tutor Juan Luis de Vives, while Vittoria Colonna, the Italian patroness of the arts, took inspiration from Mary Magdalene in her care for the prostitutes of Rome. At the same time, not surprisingly, more radical use was made of the figure of the saint among the Anabaptists and the Quakers than among Calvinists or post-Tridentine Catholics.


This work of exemplary scholarship brings to the reader’s attention dozens more fascinating examples of the appropriation of Mary Magdalen in early modern Christianity. It uncovers a story of lay women throughout Europe exploring their Christian vocation and the relationship between their discipleship and their sexuality. Alas, there is one thing it does not do, perhaps because the author herself is a Protestant (though she carefully eschews any denominational polemicism): it does not ask questions about personal devotion. For the Catholic Christian at least, the saints are not just characters to be appropriated or models of sanctity to be imitated, they are also our friends and intercessors. One can only wonder whether, even as a certain kind of devotion to this particular saint at least was not lost among Protestants, nevertheless something was lost: the Catholics devoted to Mary Magdalene not only kept a model and an inspiration – they also kept a friend.