The Mystery of Mary Magdalene’s Skull and Relics | History Hit

The Mystery of Mary Magdalene’s Skull and Relics

'Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena' (1835) by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov
Image Credit: Russian Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Magdalene – sometimes referred to as the Magdalene, the Madeleine or Mary of Magdala – was a woman who, according to the Bible’s four canonical gospels, accompanied Jesus as one of his followers, witnessing his crucifixion and resurrection. She is mentioned 12 times in the canonical gospels, more than any other woman, excluding Jesus’ family.

There is much debate about who Mary Magdalene was, with later revisions of the gospels erroneously referring to her as a sex worker, a view which has long persisted. Other interpretations suggest that she was a deeply pious woman who may have even been Jesus’ wife.

Mary remained elusive in death, with supposed relics such as a skull, a foot bone, a tooth and a hand being the source of reverence and scrutiny in equal measure. Her suspected skull, housed in a golden reliquary in the French town of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, was analysed by scientists, though they were unable to definitively conclude whether it is Mary Magdalene’s.

So, who was Mary Magdalene, where did she die and where are the relics attributed to her today?

Who was Mary Magdalene?

Mary’s epithet ‘Magdalene’ suggests that she could have come from the fishing town of Magdala, situated on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee in Roman Judea. In the Gospel of Luke, she’s referred to as having supported Jesus ‘out of their resources’, suggesting she was wealthy.

Mary’s said to have remained loyal to Jesus throughout his life, death and resurrection, accompanying him to his crucifixion, even when he had been abandoned by others. After Jesus died, Mary accompanied his body to his tomb, and it is widely recorded in multiple gospels that she was the first person to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection. She was also the first to preach the ‘good news’ of the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection.

Other early Christian texts tell us that her status as an apostle rivalled that of Peter, since her relationship with Jesus was described as intimate and even, according to the Gospel of Philip, involved kissing on the mouth. This has led some to believe that Mary was Jesus’ wife.

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However, from 591 AD onwards, a different portrait of Mary Magdalene was created, after Pope Gregory I conflated her with Mary of Bethany and an unnamed ‘sinful woman’ who anointed Jesus’ feet with her hair and oils. Pope Gregory I’s Easter sermon resulted in a widespread belief that she was a sex worker or promiscuous woman. Elaborate medieval legends then emerged which portrayed her as wealthy and beautiful, and her identity was hotly debated leading up to the Reformation.

During the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church re-branded Mary Magdalene as a symbol of penance, leading to an image of Mary as a repentant sex worker. It was only in 1969 that Pope Paul VI removed the conflated identity of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany. Nonetheless, her reputation as a repentant sex worker still persists.

Where did she die?

Tradition has it that Mary, her brother Lazarus and Maximin (one of Jesus’ 72 disciples) fled the Holy Land after St. James’ execution in Jerusalem. The story goes that they travelled by boat without sails or rudders, and landed in France at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. There, Mary began preaching and converted the local people.

For the last 30 years of her life, it is said that Mary preferred solitude so she could properly contemplate Christ, so lived in a high-up mountain cave in the Saint-Baume mountains. The cave faced northwest, making it rarely lit by the sun, with water dripping all year round. It is said that Mary fed on roots and drank dripping water to survive, and was visited by angels 7 times a day.

Detail of Mary Magdalene weeping at the crucifixion of Jesus, as portrayed in ‘The Descent from the Cross’ (c. 1435)

Image Credit: Rogier van der Weyden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Different accounts about the end of her life persist. Eastern tradition states that she accompanied St. John the Evangelist to Ephesus, near modern-day Selçuk, Turkey, where she died and was buried. Another account held by Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer states that angels recognised that Mary was close to death, so lifted her in the air and laid her down at Via Aurelia, near the shrine of St. Maximin, meaning she was thus buried in the town of Saint-Maxim.

Where are her relics kept?

Many alleged relics attributed to Mary Magdalene are held in Catholic churches in France, including at the church of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. In the basilica there which is dedicated to Mary Magdalene, under the crypt is a glass and golden reliquary where a blackened skull said to belong to her is on display. The skull is widely regarded as one of the most precious relics in all of Christendom.

Also on display is the ‘noli me tangere’, which consists of a piece of forehead flesh and skin which is said to have been touched by Jesus when they encountered one another in the garden after his resurrection.

The skull was last analysed in 1974 and has remained inside a sealed glass case since. Analysis suggests that it is the skull of a woman who lived in the 1st century, died at around 50 years old, had dark brown hair and wasn’t originally from Southern France. There is no scientific way to accurately determine whether it is Mary Magdalene’s, however. On the saint’s name day, July 22, the skull and other relics from other European churches are paraded around the town.

Mary Magdalene’s alleged skull, displayed at the basilica of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, in Southern France

Image Credit: Enciclopedia1993, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Another relic said to have belonged to Mary Magdalene is a foot bone situated at the basilica of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini in Italy, which, it is claimed, is from the first foot to have entered Jesus’ tomb during his resurrection. Another is reportedly the left hand of Mary Magdalene at Simonopetra Monastery on Mount Athos. It is said to be incorruptible, exudes a lovely fragrance, gives off a bodily warmth as if still alive and performs many miracles.

Finally, a tooth believed to have belonged to the apostle is located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Lucy Davidson