05 August 2009

'There Magdalene Hath Left Her Moan'—St Mary Magdalene in the West


As I mentioned in yesterday's post, St Mary Magdalene is a very common subject in art and literature, but many of these artists and writers have based their works on the late Western conflation of St Mary with St Mary of Bethany (sister of Lazarus), and especially with the ‘sinful woman’ of Luke 7:37-50 (on which, see an interesting blog post here), that is, nearly all of these treatments depict her as a repentant prostitute. In fact, it is the stress on St Mary as a penitent, with the accompanying tears, that has given the English language her name as a synonym for ‘sadness’—‘maudlin’ (which I have already mentioned in this post). Though, to be fair, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing argues in chapt. 16 (The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. Clifton Wolters [London: Penguin, 1978], p. 81):

For our Lord said to Mary Magdalene, the typical representative of sinners called to the contemplative life, ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee’ (Luke 7:47). Not for her great sorrow; not for her anxiety over her sins; not for her humility as she contemplated her wretchedness; but, surely, because she loved much.

Of course, there are plenty of genuine repentant prostitutes in the choir of Saints, and the glorification of a woman as such in no way constitutes a ‘smear campaign’, as a certain poorly written contemporary novel would have it. Indeed, much of the literature and art based on this theme is beautiful and moving in its own right. Thus, I thought it would be fitting to post a couple of my favourite pieces treating this later Western ‘St Mary Magdalene’, who it seems to me is Orthodox in spirit if not in historical detail.

First, here is the last stanza of a translation from a 16th-c. Latin MS in the British Museum (‘Jerusalem, My Happy Home’, The World’s Great Religious Poetry, ed. Caroline Miles Hill [NY: Macmillan, 1940], pp. 735-6), in which it is joyfully observed that in Paradise, even St Mary Magdalene’s tears will be wiped away:

There Magdalene hath left her moan,
And cheerfully doth sing
With blessed saints, whose harmony
In ever street doth ring.
Ah, my sweet home Jerusalem,
Would God my woes were at an end
Thy joys that I might see! (p. 736)

Interestingly, John Donne, in his ‘To the Lady Magdalen Herbert: of St Mary Magdalen’ (The Poems of John Donne, Vol. I: The Text of the Poems with Appendixes, ed. Herbert J.C. Grierson [London: Oxford U, 1966], pp. 317-8), shows his awareness of this discrepancy in interpretation, saying ‘that some Fathers . . . think these Magdalens [of Bethany and Magdala] were two or three’. But all of this only contributes to his main point—that Lady Herbert might be another holy Magdalen:

Her of your name, whose fair inheritance
Bethina was, and jointure Magdalo:
An active faith so highly did advance,
That she once knew, more than the Church did know,
The Resurrection; so much good there is
Deliver’d of her, that some Fathers be
Loth to believe one Woman could do this;
But, think these Magdalens were two or three.
Increase their number, Lady, and their fame:
To their Devotion, add your Innocence;
Take so much of th’example, as of the name;
The latter half; and in some recompence
That they did harbour Christ himself, a Guest,
Harbour these Hymns, to his dear name addrest.

Not to be outdone in poetic meditation on his mother’s Saint, the inimitable George Herbert also wrote one, called ‘Marie Magdalene’, in which the depth of his thought and spiritual insight is on full display. I have taken the text from The Works of George Herbert in Prose and Verse, ed. Rev. Robert Aris Willmott (NY: D. Appleton & Co, 1857), p. 183:

When blessed Marie wip’d her Saviours feet,
(Whose precepts she ahd trampled on before)
And wore them for a jewell on her head,
Shewing his steps should be the street,
Wherein she thenceforth evermore
With pensive humblenesse would live and tread:

She being stain’d herself, why did she strive
To make him clean, who could not be defil’d?
Why kept she not her tears for her own faults,
And not his feet? Though we could dive
In tears like seas, our sinnes are pil’d
Deeper then they, in words, and works, and thoughts.

Deare soul, she knew who did vouchsafe and deigne
To bear her filth; and that her sinnes did dash
Ev’n God himself: wherefore she was not loth
As she had brought wherewith to stain,
So to bring in wherewith to wash:
And yet in washing one, she washed both.

In his 1655 book, Silex Scintillans, Henry Vaughan too ventured upon the theme, with ‘St Mary Magdalen’ (George Herbert and Henry Vaughan, ed. Louis L. Martz [Oxford: Oxford U, 1992], pp. 380-2). Following Herbert, we can see here how different to his ‘concentrated art’ is Vaughan’s, whose ‘best manner is diffuse, expansive, earnest, groping, etc.’ (Louis L. Martz, ‘Introduction’, Martz, p. xxi):

Dear, beauteous Saint! more white than day,
When in his naked, pure array,
Fresher than morning-flowers which shew
As thou in tears dost, best in dew.
How art thou changed! how lively-fair,
Pleasing and innocent an air,
Not tutored by thy glass, but free,
Native and pure shines now in thee!
But since thy beauty doth still keep
Bloomy and fresh, why dost thou weep?
This dusky state of sighs and tears
Durst not look on those smiling years,
When Magdal-castle was thy seat,
Where all was sumptuous, rare and neat.
Why lies this hair despisèd now
Which once thy cair and art did show?
Who then did dress the much loved toy,
In spires, globes, angry curls and coy,
Which with skilled negligence seemed shed
About thy curious, wild, young head?
Why is this rich, this pistic nard
Spilt, and the box quite broke and marred?
What pretty sullenness did haste
Thy easy hands to do this waste?
Why art thou humbled thus, and low
As earth, thy lovely head dost bow?
Dear soul! thou knew’st, flowers here on earth
At their Lord’s foot-stool have their birth;
Therefore thy withered self in haste
Beneath his blest feet thou didst cast,
That at the root of this green tree
Thy great decays restored might be.
Thy curious vanities and rare;
Odorous ointments kept with care,
And dearly bought (when thou didst see
They could not cure, nor comfort thee)
Like a wise, early Penitent
Thou sadly didst to him present,
Whose interceding, meek and calm
Blood, is the world’s all-healing Balm.
This, this Divine Restorative
Called forth thy tears, which ran in live
And hasty drops, as if they had
(Their Lord so near) sense to be glad.
Learn, Ladies, here the faithful cure
Makes beauty lasting, fresh and pure;
Learn Mary’s art of tears, and then
Say, You have got the day from men.
Cheap, mighty Art! her Art of love,
Who loved much and much more could move;

Her Art! whose memory must last
Till truth through all the world be past,
Till his abused, despisèd flame
Return to Heaven, from whence it came,
And send a fire down, that shall bring
Destruction on his ruddy wing.

Her Art! whose pensive, weeping eyes,
Were once sin’s loose and tempting spies,
But now are fixèd stars, whose light
Helps such dark stragglers to their sight.

Self-boasting Pharisee! how blind
A judge wert thou, and how unkind!
It was impossible, that thou
Who wert all false, should’st true grief know;
Is’t just to juge her faithful tears
By that foul rheum thy false eye wears?

This woman (say’st thou) is a sinner:
And sate there none such at thy dinner?
Go leper, go; wash till thy flesh
Comes like a child’s, spotless and fresh;
He is still leprous, that still paints:
Who saint themselves, they are no saints.

And finally, the last piece is the most modern, not only in form, but in intentio auctoris, if not intentio operis. I cannot seem to rediscover the source, but I read somewhere that Padraic Pearse wrote his well-known ‘A Song for Mary Magdalene’ as part of a play, where it was ‘composed’ by a young character as a school exercise. If I remember correctly, it was intended by Pearse to be the epitome of the trite and unoriginal. Nevertheless, many people—and myself included—seem to find it compelling. It’s been recorded by a Benedictine Abbey, and a line even found its way into the title of a radio program by RTÉ, the Irish Public Service Broadcaster.

O woman of the gleaming hair,
(Wild hair that won men’s gaze to thee)
Weary thou turnest from the common stare,
For the shuiler Christ is calling thee.

O woman of the snowy side,
Many a lover hath lain with thee,
Yet left thee sad at the morning tide,
But thy lover Christ shall comfort thee.

O woman with the wild thing’s heart,
Old sin hath set a snare for thee:
In the forest ways forspent thou art
But the hunter Christ shall pity thee.

O woman spendthrift of thyself,
Spendthrift of all the love in thee,
Sold unto sin for little pelf,
The captain Christ shall ransom thee.

O woman that no lover’s kiss
(Tho’ many a kiss was given thee)
Could slake thy love, is it not for this
The hero Christ shall die for thee?

Of the paintings, the top is Titian’s ‘Penitent St Mary Magdalene’ (1565. Oil on canvas. The Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia), and the bottom is Frederick Sandys’s ‘Mary Magdalene’ (c. 1858-1860. Oil on panel. Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE).

4 comments:

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Ah! And now for the Oxonian connection.

A friend of mine years ago was at Magdalen College, Oxford. Many don't realize that the college's name "Magdalen" is pronounced "maudlin." School tradition includes the putting on of various plays, and these are generally quite sappy and overwrought. So, a "maudlin" something-or-other was of the same character. That's one Magdalen tradition for maudlin, anyway.

It's surely correct, however, that the connection lies in the conception of the penitential weeping of the Magdalene.

In case folks weren't aware, St Mary's hometown is now being excavated. The Magdala Project is the official website for the excavations. They're finding goodies.

aaronandbrighid said...

Did you see my quote from C.S. Lewis in the first post about St Mary and the Oxford and Cambridge colleges?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Obviously no! Very nice! I missed that whole paragraph somehow. I think I skipped ahead to the poetry too eagerly....

aaronandbrighid said...

You're my kind of guy, Edgecomb!