If women’s history had a symbol, that would be Mary Magdalene. Riddled with silences and fabrications, her myth has endured through the ages as a metaphor for the unresolved ambiguities of womanhood: alternately, Mary Magdalene can be regarded as an icon of agency and empowerment, but also as an androcentric construction, which combines all the female stereotypes women must negotiate in patriarchal societies. Her complex persona encompasses the experiences that define most women’s lives to this day: our sexuality, which is policed through stigmas, shame, and double standards; our bodies, which are objectified as agents of temptation; our knowledge, which is still disregarded; our testimonies, which are too often met with distrust; our accomplishments, which are absent from mainstream historical narratives; our voices, which are disproportionally excluded from ministry and public office.
In the New Testament, Mary Magdalene is freed from seven demons, enjoys special status among the disciples, witnesses the Crucifixion and announces the Resurrection of Christ. Owing to an inaccurate scriptural interpretation by Pope Gregory the Great, this figure was conflated with that of Mary from Bethany, who pours nard over Christ’s feet, and that of the unnamed sinner who anoints Jesus with tears and perfume. This misunderstanding gave life to the Magdalene most of us know today: the femme fatale, the reformed prostitute, and the “antitype” of the Virgin Mary. However, none of the canonical gospels testifies to her being a sinner or a prostitute. The Gnostic literature where she was lauded as a symbol of knowledge, and as a spiritual leader in charge of the inner sanctum of Christ’s followers was suppressed in the fourth century, when the nascent Church formed the official scriptural canon.
Despite receiving the revelation of the Resurrection that forms the basis of the Christian faith, “Mary Magdalene was expulsed from the apostolic succession, which became a male prerogative” (37). Her metamorphosis from brave disciple into a weeping fallen woman comprises the focus of Mary Magdalene: Women, the Church and the Great Deception because, according to Adriana Valerio, it “has weighed heavily on the collective consciousness regarding the female gender and on the role assigned to women in the Churches” (14). The omission of Magdalene’s apostolic contribution has contributed to strip women of their power, to preserve male monopoly over the institutional bodies of the Church, and to uphold patriarchal ideology in lay society. For this reason, Valerio asserts that recovering Magdalene’s memory is a necessary political operation with the potential for achieving gender equality within the Church – commonly known as the “Church Reform.”
From primitive Christian sources to literary documents, from types of worship to the visual arts, from Rome to Vézelay, Valerio’s sweeping survey traces the fascinating evolution of Mary Magdalene across the centuries: it begins by inspecting Gnostic and apocryphal documents and by following the conflicts that reduced her pivotal role in the early Church, it then examines the Magdalenian fervour of the Middle Ages, when the legend of her eremitic retreat to the desert turned her into a paragon of ascesis, mortification and redemption. In the Renaissance, Magdalene became a Venus-like figure, with portrayals that dwelled on her loose golden hair and seductive naked body for the enjoyment of the male gaze. Following the sixteenth-century religious upheavals, the Catholic Church sanctioned her cult as an incentive to the practice of confession, which was denied by the “justification by faith” of Protestantism. Seen as the incarnation of the “Eternal Feminine” throughout the nineteenth century, the saint still bears the vestiges of the prostitute in twentieth-century literature and cinematography. Mary Magdalene emerges from Valerio’s account as a palimpsest, inscribed with the needs and desires of different generations of men, embodying “the archetype of feminine erotic seduction that is redeemed to the extent in which she transcends her own sensuality” (92).
Engaging in dialogue with an Italian feminist tradition that seeks to retrieve the voices and experiences of our female ancestors, Valerio is unwavering in her commitment to unearthing a “female genealogy” which will liberate women from the male-authored tradition that has misrepresented us for millennia. The most compelling and original sections of this erudite volume cover the presence of Mary Magdalene in women’s literature and scholarship from the fourteenth century to the present: among others, Christine de Pizan, Vittoria Colonna, Arcangela Tarabotti, and Alda Merini reclaimed the biblical figure, seeing how she bravely supported Jesus at the hour of trial, contrary to the frightened men who fled, stricken by doubt. Celebrated for her ardent love, steadfast devotion and spiritual insight, Mary Magdalene often appears as a fearless model of testimony in women’s writings. During the latter half of the twentieth century, this tradition of radical biblical interpretations grew into a lively scholarly movement, inspiring a blossoming of new feminist theological and hermeneutical approaches for the recovery of the marginalised mothers of Christian faith.
As one of the first Italian women to graduate in theology and one of the protagonists of this movement, Adriana Valerio’s publications expose the male bias of theology and call for the profound transformation of ecclesiastical institutions to incorporate women. In recent years, the scapegoating of Mary Magdalene has become a subject of intense research among feminist academics, because it demonstrates that the manipulations involved in the passage from apostle to prostitute have been instrumental to the male-dominated system “that nipped in the bud the possibility of guiding roles of women in the Church” (95). Consequently, Magdalene, the “apostle of apostles,” is now the figurehead of the ongoing battle for women’s ordination in the Catholic Church.
Because Mary Magdalene has been smeared as a whore to discredit her revolutionary message, it is crucial to retrieve her priestly mandate, while, at the same time, advocating for women’s sexual liberation. In her quest to redeem the fallen prostitute, I wish that Valerio had argued more forcefully that Magdalene’s alleged sexual sin is not the issue: what matters most is how the false charge of sexual promiscuity has been weaponised to silence her, and how the emphasis on mortification has served to shackle her. In short, we must not condemn women’s sexual activities, but the patriarchal moral code that demonises them. A feminist historical reconstruction requires us to challenge without reservation the undertow of misogyny that has fashioned the beata peccatrix into being. Otherwise, with our emphasis on dissociating Magdalene from the figure of the prostitute, we risk conceding a great deal to the very misogyny we intend to refute. In doing so, we might also alienate all those women who recognise themselves in Magdalene precisely for her identification as a prostitute.
Adriana Valerio’s brilliant Mary Magdalene: Women, the Church and the Great Deception is essential reading for anyone who cares about Church history and gender equality, rigorously condensing a wealth of feminist research into a concise volume for a wide readership. Wendy Wheatley’s beautiful translation captures Valerio’s passionate cadence, rendering her elegantly captivating Italian prose into English without flattening its nuances, nor diluting its urgency. I suspect that this spellbinding journey into the folds of history will prove particularly enticing to women, lay and faithful alike. In the wake of the #MeToo movement and debates surrounding sex work, Valerio’s investigation speaks to our times with impressive relevance, prompting us to contextualise our current struggles in a historical perspective. As it illustrates how the ecclesiastical propaganda against women officiating at the altar is rooted in centuries of patriarchal dogma, this timely book invites us to join the battle for women’s ministry and ordination.
Valerio, Adriana. Mary Magdalene. Women, the Church, and the Great Deception. Translated by Wendy Wheatley. Europa Compass, 2021.
Carlotta Moro is a PhD student in the Department of Italian at the University of St Andrews, where she is working on Renaissance feminism and early modern women writers. She holds an MLitt in Women, Writing and Gender, and her research interests include the history of Italian feminist thought, Italian women’s writing, gender theory, feminist theology, ecofeminism, and Elena Ferrante.