Western Art Vanishes Together with Mary Magdalene
A remarkable discovery leads to a trail of unusual historical and cultural revelations
My discovery of the virtually hidden medieval sculpture of “Eve in the Garden of Eden” on a church capital in the Basilica of Mary Magdalene at Vézelay, Burgundy, eastern France sets the scene. This Eve sculpture evolves into a springboard for exploring in depth a number of significant historical and cultural themes.
The sculpture itself is unique for its time as it displays an unexpected three dimensional realism in art and is provocative in its nudity – qualities which stand in contrast to and break with the 500 year old tradition of medieval art, which is in the main flat, elongated and non-realistic. However, whatever its artistic form we cannot escape the sculpture’s ominous Christian message of original sin and the damning of the human race setting up human society on a very troubling foundation.
Yet, the sculpture’s fresh artistic style leads us back to the realism of the thousand year Greco-Roman heritage which had been excised throughout most of the Middle Ages. While the purpose of Medieval art was to serve as a didactic tool for assisting to reveal the divine and so draw one closer to God, the preceding Greco-Roman artistic tradition indulged in providing aesthetic pleasure.
Apart from its avant-garde artistic breakthrough another equally important fact is Eve’s location in the town of Vézelay in a church dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Could the sculpture have any connection to Mary Magdalene or to Vézelay, or perhaps to both Mary and Vézelay? It was Eve’s location in the Magdalene Church which led me to investigate whether any such linkage did indeed exist between Eve and Mary. The New Testament hardly mentions Mary Magdalene, and when it does the text is often vague and biased. So I explored the Apocryphal (excluded gospels) Christian sources which revealed to me that Mary Magdalene was actually far more central to the rise of Christianity than was generally accepted by the mainstream. In fact she was Jesus’ closest follower and friend, proving herself to be more loyal and courageous than any of the apostles, especially Peter. Amazingly, she overshadowed Peter in all she did.
However, Mary’s prominence and influence among Jesus’ followers later terrified the Church Fathers lest she accrue too much power, for she virtually leads the band of dispirited followers after Jesus’ death. And it’s clear that Christianity’s survival owes a big debt to her.
The Church Fathers dismissed power sharing with women and refused to accept anything but a male dominated church. This comes to a head in the early 6th century when Pope Gregory 1 the Great makes a decisive response to Mary’s ever-increasing influence. After having gained autocratic authority as the sole religious and secular western leader, he disgraced Mary Magdalene’s historic image by emphasizing her sinfulness and calling her nothing but a harlot. From words to action, he then took the extreme measure of eliminating her together with all her symbolic saintliness from the Christian matrix.
Pope Gregory’s attack on Mary was actually an assault on the original Christian ethical and egalitarian approach to women at Christ’s time and in particular abusing to Christ himself, who befriended Mary. As her intimacy with Jesus caused jealousy among some apostles and competitiveness with Peter, Gregory’s approach to Mary was to bury the rivalry with Peter.
And now from the upper echelons of the Church the message of Mary’s dismissal as well as the accompanying emphasis on Sin and Salvation, Heaven and Hell had still to filter down to the masses – and this was achieved primarily through an omnipresent style of novel artwork to an illiterate population. And so a unique medieval art style was born.
To understand medieval art I felt I had to first get to better acquainted with the abandoned 1000 year old Greco-Roman artistic heritage. So I set off to the source of western art – to Greece, to discover the original art form and appreciate its adulation and centrality of the human body, its mammoth splendid buildings and breathe the overriding free spirit allowing it all to happen. Greece provided me with the knowledge and insights into that lost heritage of western art enabling me to pursue the replaced innovative medieval art form.
In the 5th and 6th centuries the concepts and free spirit of the Greco-Roman heritage in all its aspects was gradually stifled by the Church Fathers. The former liberal atmosphere was now replaced with a censorious authoritative political-religious system. Consequently, the former pride of the human body was now replaced by an approach of shame which considered the body as sinful and inferior, and merely the temporary casing of the immortal human soul.
The change in approach to the human body was reflected in the new Christian art form. The art style now became flat, two-dimensional and elongated. It no longer aimed at providing aesthetic delight but instead became a didactic tool for depicting and delivering messages of a divine nature. The essence of the art form now became inundated with portrayals of Heaven and Hell. And medieval life evolved into an age immersed in angst awaiting the fate of the soul after death. At the Last Judgment would the soul be weighed to Salvation or Hell? And the horror of Hell was implacable. So everyday life was bound up in concern of sin, and sin was associated of course with sex and beauty. The awesome descriptions of the fate possibly awaiting us were depicted in ubiquitous sculptures and other art forms.
The Greco-Roman art heritage was not the only loss to the western world. Simultaneously to the displacement of western art with the new medieval art form the image and cultural-religious heritage of Mary Magdalene is expunged from the Christian Matrix. She can no longer intervene to save Christian souls: and her symbolic empathy and mercy vanished too – or rather is intentionally faded out of history.
Let us explore what Mary had accomplished after Christ died on the Cross and left his band of followers leaderless.
Various sources indicate that Mary Magdalene left the Holy Land like the other Apostles to spread the Gospel. One tradition holds that she made her way to Emperor Tiberius in Rome to Christianize the Roman Empire (300 years too early). Another claims she made her home in Ephesus in Turkey. A stranger story even claims she reached Glastonbury in southern England. Yet the South of France became the most agreed upon destination and supposedly still holds her remains today. Therefore I chose to follow in Mary’s footsteps and view the mixture of testimony and folklore myself. I made my way to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer not far from Marseilles on the French Mediterranean coast where she had supposedly landed and preached. After having converted the locals to Christianity she left to go about fifty kilometers further north to the Sainte Baume Mountains.
Arriving at the Sainte Baume region I hiked up the steep path to the grotto where Mary continued to convert the pagans to Christianity and made her final home. The magical cave holds a reliquary with a few of her bodily remains.
Mary’s preaching focused on eliminating paganism in the Roman world, particularly Venus and the cult of the Vestal Virgins. For Roman society the belief in the god Venus led directly to the cult of the Vestal Virgin. The worship of the Vestal Virgins emphasizes the considerable value placed on physical female beauty in Roman society. Although the Church made compromises and accepted certain pagan ideas it had to eliminate Venus. So hundreds of years before her dismissal from Christianity’s mainstream Mary Magdalene was exploited by the Church Fathers to substitute for Venus, whose final suppression came with Rome’s conversion to Christianity in the 4th century. The worship of one female against another was manipulated by the Church in order to elevate the significance of Mary Magdalene. Mary’s divine beauty (her physical beauty was not completely veiled too) vied against Venus’ physical beauty. Divine love eventually wins – Mary is victorious!
And so for the next two hundred years Mary and her symbolism imbued with divine powers replaces Venus. Gradually the Christian concept of divine spiritual beauty is made concrete in paintings and icons. Mary is acknowledged as emanating virtues of compassion and empathy and is also worshiped for possessing the mysterious power to intercede divinely and so save souls.
Following my visit to Sainte Baume I made my way to the neighboring Church of St. Maximin, where Mary Magdalene is interred. Deep down in the church’s crypt lies the sarcophagus, skull veiled behind a death mask, and a beautiful reliquary containing more of her bodily relics, which leads me back again to the Basilica of Mary Magdalene in Vézelay, hundreds of miles away to the east in Burgundy where I had seen some of Mary’s relics too.
And why was the church at Vézelay dedicated to Mary Magdalene when she had died at Sainte Baume and been interred at Saint Maximin? I found the answer to be – relics – and their significance for medieval churches. Relics raised the status of the church, put it on the pilgrim map and brought in a steady income. And so some of her relics at St. Maximin were stolen and brought to Vézelay. But why was there a need to dedicate the church to Mary Magdalene if she had been removed from Christian matrix? And the answer to this was: we had now reached the High Middle Ages and Mary was being reintroduced by popular demand. And the Basilica of Vézelay dedicated to Mary Magdalene was the official stamp of approval of her rehabilitation.
Mary’s return to the Christian matrix was also engineered by an overall wind of change. It occurred between the 11 to 14 centuries in Europe when a general transformation came about including a relaxation of tension and angst. Among such beneficial influences were the rise of universities, the introduction of courtly love and romance, an agricultural revolution, a demographic rise, and more. Yet Mary Magdalene’s iconic return also came with a warning, and this was delivered in the numerous works of art where Mary could be viewed holding or being in close proximity to a skull. On her Saint’s Day in July, Mary’s skull is revealed in public in a church parade. Mary’s skull not only symbolizes death but highlights the triviality of the material world, a world tainted with sin, and so elevating the significance of salvation.
Yet, as we gradually surface into the early modern era a one-sided message of doom is no longer fully acceptable and some kind of a balance is yearned for. Does the new realism of the Eve sculpture, which places the human being more in the center of things, provide an antidote to Mary’s ominous communication through the skull? On my second visit to Vézelay I pondered the Eve sculpture and considered it to be a mixture of both doom and hope. On the one hand it is a work of sensibility and individuality positing the centrality of man- a positive breakthrough by a rebel artist. Yet, on the other hand, one cannot escape the essence of the sculpture – a reminder of the first act of sin to be inherited by the human race for ever.
It didn’t take long during the High Middle Ages before Vézelay Eve’s influence spread its wings and affected the transformation of art in general and sculpture in particular. Thus we witness the spread of the Lilith theme and the daring Lilith sculpture in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It does now seem that Vézelay Eve was the first bullet fired targeting the return of the Greco-Roman heritage. Vézelay Eve and then Lilith show that art was definitely going through a transition in the 12 and 13th centuries – undoubtedly mirroring the overall cultural-religious and other changes. The heavy and dark Romanesque gives way to the sublime height and light of the Gothic art. Sculptures are now free standing and it’s no longer taboo to express emotions, as can be witnessed in the Gothic sculpture of the Angel Gabriel displaying his magical smile at the Reims Cathedral.
The anonymous artisans have now evolved into artists bearing famous names such as Giotto and Simone Martini. And these artists are no longer solely in the service of the church but are more naturally inclined towards art for art’s sake. Their new art works are ubiquitous, especially in civic building such as palaces and town halls and not just in churches. And a number of Giotto’s paintings are specifically aimed at helping to rehabilitate Mary Magdalene, as does the Order of the Knights Templar which dedicates itself to Mary in the 13th century. In the final analysis Mary Magdalene has truly taken her place once again in the matrix of the Christian mainstream.
The sinful Augustine City of Man is losing its hold. New values are emerging: restoration of realistic art, acceptance of natural beauty and rehabilitation of Mary Magdalene. History is witnessing the arrival of the first swallow in the spring of emerging modern man. The Church now relaxes its emphasis on Heaven and Hell and moves over to stressing Christian virtue and vice while highlighting the virtues of Mary Magdalene, namely: compassion, empathy and charity.
As with most things, the early Greeks got there first. They had been preaching virtue long before the Christian Church. And Rome inherited the Greek virtues although modifying some. Yet the essence was Greek and this essence with its later Christian packing and merging of world views enabled a cultural-religious jump to the rise of Humanism in the 14th and 15th centuries. Humanism was the convergence of Christian and secular values; Donatello expressed this in his unique sculpture of the elderly Mary Magdalene. Her qualities are the essence of humanism. And it was this cultural movement which carved the way directly to the Renaissance.
And so standing in the Church at Vézelay where the Eve sculpture is the essential link in restoring centrality of humankind, I feel we have come full circle in the search for lost beauty and sensuality. And Sandro Botticelli’s painting of the rise of Aphrodite from the sea crowns the new era in its perception of beauty.