Mary Magdalen, Myth and Metaphor by Susan Haskins, HarperCollins, £9.99
WHEN WE THINK OF Mary Magdalen, the image of a repentant prostitute flashes through our minds. Most of us are unaware that this image was invented 300 years after the Gospels the Gospels and other early Christian writings portray Mary Magdalen as a leader in the early Church, an evangelist and a deacon.
The opening chapters of Susan Haskins' book explore the historical Magdalen, present at the death of Christ, the first to meet the risen Lord, and a leader in the Christian community. Subsequent chapters explore the myths and metaphors which Magdalen accumulated down the centuries.
In a patriarchal Church in which men responded to the emotional appeal of a sexy penitent prostitute, Magdalen became their heroine. Leading artists carved and painted her in a desert landscape weeping for her sins. By the 13th century, Magdalen's supposed sexual sins were being dwelt on and portrayed. To counterbalance this, however, she was often very beautifully portrayed weeping at the foot of the Cross. The Puritan revival which swept Europe led to a new attitude to Magdalen and to all fallen women.
By the 19th century, prostitutes, or Magdalens, were the object of crusades against immorality and impurity. The recovery of fallen women was seen by these zealous Christians as the highest form of love. Only with the arrival of a feminist critique of the Scriptures in the last 30 years has Magdalen been restored to her rightful place.
This book is probably the most exhaustive exploration so far of Mary Magdalen's place in Western civilisation. Despite its length and its detail, it is lively, attractive and easy to read. I thoroughly recommend it.
ELIZABETH REES BVM