Mary Magdalene

A Visual History

Diane Apostolos-Cappadona

Bloomsbury, 2023

ISBN 9780567705747


Art Historian Diane Apostolos-Cappadona asks ‘who was the historical Mary Magdalene?’ Her image appears in paintings, sculpture, books, and film, where she is represented as sinner, a penitent, a witness, a contemplative, an anointer, a reader, a preacher and more. What do these images tell us?

In answer the author expands her exhibition catalogue In Search of Mary Magdalene: Images and Traditions (American Bible Society, 2002). The result is a visual feast of one hundred and thirty eight images of Mary Magdalene from the very earliest of 240 AD to the present.  The author notes the transformations in Mary Magdalene’s imagery in response to changes in ‘cultural and theological perceptions’ over the centuries and adds a comprehensive scholarly discussion of written records. The result is this fascinating book.

This book finds Mary Magdalene to be an historical figure. She certainly appears in the Gospels as one of Jesus’ followers and as a witness to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. All Gospel writers agree that Mary saw the empty tomb and that she was the first to see the risen Christ (Matthew 28:1-8; Mark16:1- 8; Luke 24:1-10; John 20:1-18). It is also claimed that she is mentioned in the Talmud, in Josephus’ Jewish Wars and by Pliny. She appears in the fifth century non-canonical Gnostic texts the Gospel of Mary (found in 1896) and the Gospel of Philip (found in 1945). But she still remains an unidentified figure because Mary was a very popular name in first century Palestine. Several women called Mary appear in the Gospels, including Jesus’ mother, the Virgin Mary. The result is a ‘muddle of Marys’ writes the author, quoting Marina Warner’s 1976 Alone of all Her Sex

Luke 8:2-7 identifies Mary as one of the women who followed Jesus and ‘provided for them out of their own resources’, which might indicate that she was independently wealthy. Mary was probably from Magdala, a prosperous town on the shores of the Sea of Galilee variously described as a fishing town, a forestry town, or a town famed for immorality. Josephus states that Magdala was destroyed by the Romans because of its bad reputation, so perhaps Mary Magdalene’s reputation as sinner reflects her town’s reputation. Ongoing archaeological excavations may enlighten us. In Mark 16:9 and  Luke 8:2-7 Mary Magdalene is named as the woman cured by Jesus of seven devils or demons, and in first century Palestine demons were ‘signs of illness, possession or sexual vices’. This may explain why she is represented as a sinner in images and popular culture. 

Mary then became a ‘composite’ figure identified with both the nameless woman taken in adultery (John. 8:1-11) and the nameless woman at Simon the Pharisee’s house who wept and anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment from an alabaster jar (Luke. 7:36-9). One brilliant century manuscript illustration (c. 1400-10, p. 101) represents the whole story of the Woman taken in Adultery in one scene. That woman is Mary Magdalene. On the left Jesus writes on the ground with his right hand and with his left pardons the woman in front of him whose hands are held up to him. On the right the Pharisees quietly depart through an open door. 

Apostolos-Cappadona argues that the story of Saint Mary of Egypt also contributed to Mary Magdalene’s composite image as a repentant sinner. In the sixth century the Patriarch of Jerusalem wrote a life of Mary of Egypt who, from the age of twelve, ‘lived a life of sexual perversity’ in Alexandria. Visiting Jerusalem she found herself stopped from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by an invisible force. She repented and lived the rest of her life as a desert penitent with only her hair covering her nakedness. In an illustration from the fifteenth century Hours of Jean Dunois Mary of Egypt appears dressed only in her long hair and luxuriant body hair and Saint Zosimas offers a cloak. 

In the sixth century the Pope Gregory the Great proclaimed Mary Magdalene a saint, a sinner and a penitent and in so doing endorsed the ‘composite Mary’. Some, including Saint Augustine of Canterbury, disputed this. Mary became a very popular saint in medieval Christendom and her image as a penitent sinner and witness became widely available. She is frequently seen with the attribute of an alabaster jar referencing the anointing in Luke’s Gospel. The jar was understood as a symbol of metamorphosis and hope, a reminder that at the bottom of Pandora’s jar lay hope. 

Mary appears as first witness to the Resurrection in paintings of Christ the gardener.  She is also often portrayed weeping, where tears represented an ‘external expression of the spiritual action of the purification of the soul’. Other symbols, such as a skull, scourge or crucifix, depict Mary Magdalene contemplating the transitory nature of life. 

Images of Mary Magdalene’s long, often red, hair reference her roles as anointer and sinner. The colour and style of hair indicated social status as well as physical and spiritual character in classical and early Christian culture. Loose long hair signalled a virgin or modest widow. Hair indicated energy, including spiritual energy and fertility. Abundant hair indicated Mary’s spiritual healing and development. So in Botticelli’s ‘Mystic Crucifixion’ Mary, as witness, lies at the foot of the cross. Her hair is long and red as ‘a visual metaphor of the rebirth of faith that will follow’. 

From the late twentieth century Mary Magdalene as a ‘feminist icon’ represents ‘the marginalized’. In a striking 2003 painting by Frank Sabbate the red headed Magdalene sits with her alabaster jar in front of her. To her left is inscribed a passage from Mark 14:9 and Matthew 26:13 in which Jesus says about an unnamed woman: ‘Wherever the Gospel is proclaimed to the whole world what she has done will be told in memory of her.’

Mary Sokol 


The Pope at War 

David I. Kertzer

Oxford University Press, 2022

ISBN 9780192890733


Hitler’s Pope. Ever since the publication of his book under this title over twenty years ago, John Cornwell’s provocative description of Eugenio Pacelli, who reigned as Supreme Pontiff from 1939 until his death in 1958, remains a touchstone for how Pius XII is remembered. In the popular imagination, Pius XII’s conduct in the 1930s and 1940s is perhaps more controversial than his later invocation of papal infallibility in 1950 to declare the Blessed Virgin Mary Assumed body and soul into Heaven when her earthly life was over. 

Kertzer’s book, published under a more neutral title than Cornwell’s, follows his earlier book on Pius XII’s predecessor, Pius XI, under whom the then Cardinal Pacelli served as Secretary of State and before that as papal nuncio to Germany. It was as Secretary of State, with a deep knowledge of German and Germany, that Pacelli negotiated the Concordat with the new Reich administration led by Chancellor Adolf Hitler. 

In both of his books, Kertzer claims to reveal the ‘secret history’ of the pontiffs he explores. In this volume, Kertzer makes a great deal of drawing extensively on the Vatican archives that were only opened to scholars by the current pope in 2020. Yet the archives do not seem to contain any particularly devastating material which can be levelled against Pius XII, nor do they exonerate the pontiff of the claim so often made against him that he said and did too little to denounce the war of aggression launched by Nazi Germany. A war which Fascist Italy eagerly supported, and which came to include the systematic attempt to annihilate Jews from as much of Europe as possible.

Writing throughout in clear, fairly dispassionate prose, Kertzer gives a helpful summary of the dramatis personae at the beginning of his book. Moreover, without becoming another narrative history of the Second World War, Kertzer’s book gives the reader enough details of what was happening on the battlefields and in the decision-making centres of both Allied and Axis belligerent states to make sense of the geopolitical and military context in which the papacy of Pius XII existed at any particular time.

Time and time again, Kertzer reveals Pius XII and the advisors around him to be concerned not to antagonise Mussolini. Kertzer seeks to rationalise the pope’s repeated refusal to castigate Fascist rule in Italy, including the regime’s fervent support of the Nazi war effort and its increasingly stringent anti-Jewish legislation, in terms of the pope seeing Mussolini as a ’moderating influence’ on Hitler, the man whom Pius XII correctly perceived to be the strongman of the Axis cause. Yet, what is apparent in Kertzer’s analysis is how the pope constantly underappreciated the strength of his position, especially with respect to Italy over whose Church it must be remembered he as pontiff was primate.

Whereas the pope and those around him justified their action (or inaction) in terms of the weakness of their position and that of Roman Catholicism more generally, particularly in Nazi Germany, Kertzer rightly concludes that Mussolini had more need to be seen as the defender of the papacy than ever the pope needed to be regarded as the friend of, or at least non-critical neighbour to, Fascism. What emerges from Kertzer’s account, then, is a sense that Pius XII’s conduct arose from a fear of Hitler and Mussolini which became a self-fulfilling prophecy the more the war revealed these men and their regimes to be instigators of brutality on an apocalyptic scale.

It was another dictator of this period, one whom Pius XII feared more than any other, Joseph Stalin, who famously dismissed the power of the papacy by asking, ‘how many divisions has the Pope?’ In fact, Kertzer suggests that Pius XII had far more ability to denounce the evils being perpetuated across Europe, including by many who called themselves Catholics. In the present day, this is particularly pertinent with regards to the ties between the leaders of Russian Orthodoxy and the Kremlin, and the support given by the former towards the latter’s invasion and attempted subjugation of another sovereign state. 

With clear and methodical analysis, coupled with plentiful photographs of key people and moments, Kertzer’s book ultimately reminds us of the truth spoken by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the many victims of Nazism, that not to speak is to speak. For Patriarch Kirill and all Christians, this is a truth which we must remember ahead of the day when we will answer not only for those things we have left undone but also for those things we have left unsaid.

Thomas Cotterill


For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain 

Victoria Mackenzie

Bloomsbury, 2023

ISBN 9781526647887


Bloomsbury Publishing missed a trick not bringing out this wonderful book in time for Lent reading groups! Next Lent Norwich bookshops at the very least should have a windowful of “for thy great pain have mercy on my little pain”, set as it is in Margery Kempe’s King’s Lynn and Mother Julian’s Norwich and mentioning Walsingham en route. In 1413 Margery Kempe sought the counsel of the anchoress Julian. Leading up to their meeting, Victoria Mackenzie expertly alternates the pages between Margery Kempe living in King’s Lynn and Mother Julian in Norwich, setting out their lives and words. The author herself describes the book as “a creative engagement” with The Book of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love and she unerringly reproduces both the language and the cadences of the two books. Her style, I hasten to add, reads easily.

Both women were mystics who had visions. Both women lived in Norfolk from the late fourteenth century into the fifteenth century. But there are stark differences in their lives. Julian could both read and write and somehow smuggled her writings out of her cell – Mackenzie suggests she gave them to Margery Kempe. The illiterate Margery had to dictate her book (a book which is considered by some to be the first autobiography in the English language.) Julian counselled people confined to her small bricked-up anchorite cell (anchorite cells were roughly six feet square). But Margery travelled vast distances: to York, to the Holy Land via Venice and back through Rome and Assisi; to Santiago de Compostela; and to Prussia where she visited the Holy Blood relic at Bad Wilsnack. The two met when Margery came to Julian’s cell to ask for guidance. They spent several days talking and Margery leaves much comforted.

The details are vivid and intriguing. It was a surprise to discover Julian found being bricked up in a small cell so difficult: she spends the first early months in a state of ‘nothingness and weeping.’ And I was dismayed at Margery Kempe’s intemperate and impolitic language. She was in prison on a charge of heresy which was punishable by burning at the stake. Yet she told her arbitrator, the Archbishop of York, that he was a wicked man and would never get to heaven. The reader may inevitably ‘take sides’: the gentle, wise Julian contrasting with the brash, angry, self-centred Margery. Victoria Mackenzie’s genius is that she turns our opinion round. She shows Julian understanding her suppliant who, though boastful and loudmouthed, was ‘the loneliest woman she had ever met,’ a woman burdened by her visions.

In the fifteenth century some women who had visions were judged to be heretics. Margery had many visions of Our Lord: Jesus even came and sat with her. Julian called her fourteen visions ‘showings’ in which she saw blood flow from Jesus’ wounds and felt the glory of God. Margery was also afflicted by outbursts of noisy weeping in public places. Julian comforts and affirms her by quoting St Jerome: ‘salt tears torment the devil more than the pains of hell.’ 

The number of pages is short, 162; the content concentrated; the writing sparse and beautiful. Read and ponder! 

Elisabeth Angwin


Lively Oracles of God

Perspectives on the Bible and Liturgy

Gordon Jeanes and Bridget Nichols, Editors

Alcuin Club Collections 97

Liturgical Press, 2022

ISBN 9780814667224


The respected scholar, Paul F. Bradshaw, who contributed the foreword to this latest Alcuin Club publication, is also frequently found in many of the footnotes; testament surely to his prodigious output in liturgical studies. But on closer inspection, the references in this volume give an insight into the overall perspective. Work of the late 20th and early 21st Century is often cited, along with references to the scriptures and certain Fathers (Augustine, Irenaeus and Justin). But other than the occasional passing reference to Shakespeare, Hooker and quite frequent quotations from the 1662 Prayer Book, there is very little else.

This is not to say that this collection of essays is exclusively written by, for and about the Church of England. Indeed, one of the strengths of the collection is the wide range of scholars who have contributed to it, both from Roman Catholic and other Anglican churches. It is a serious body of work addressing the very broad topic of Holy Scripture and liturgy and seeks – successfully – to probe this issue from different perspectives. 

As is often the case with a collection of work from multiple authors, there is a degree of unevenness to be found here: some chapters are rather thin learned musings, whilst others are really quite dense and rich. The tone in general is exploratory and questioning rather than overtly programmatic, which in the consideration of things which are at the heart of Christian worshipping life, is to be welcomed.

However, you can certainly see a view emerging, and it is one that seems consonant with the suspicion raised by the footnotes. On the whole, the volume seems to subscribe to what could be called the ‘liturgist’ approach to liturgy, and this is borne out in the chapters. This might be characterised as a tendency to see liturgy as a kind of train set (or maybe sets of train sets) to be analysed, described and tinkered with. I could find no representation of what might be called an ‘organicist’ view espoused by the late Benedict XVI, Alcuin Reid, Klaus Gamber and others which sees liturgy rather as some kind of tree to be tended, cared for and sometimes, indeed, pruned.

It’s a pity because, although there is plenty of interesting reflection on Perspectives on the Bible and Liturgy, the presupposition that some kind of fiddling, tweaking or reform is needed is never far from the surface. Instead of more and deeper reflection on biblical texts and liturgical tradition and practice, the question that seems to characterise the tenor of many contributions is not ‘what can we learn from the liturgy?’ but ‘how can we change it to reflect what we (think) we know?’

Guy Willis


The Spirit of Catholicism

Vivian Boland OP

Bloomsbury Continuum, 2021

ISBN 9781441178022


Take a quick look at the murky pond that is social media and you’ll soon get the impression that there’s not much love of the Church around. It’s true that the institutional life of the Church can wound us, leave us feeling battered, and most of the time perplexed. What’s striking though is that in so much discourse, especially from some of those who are Her ministers, there’s a lack of love or delight in the Church.

At the same time, in the Church of England at least, there seems to be a bit of panic about what the Church is. Whilst shrill voices outside the Church imagine that we ought to be some sort of branch of the Home Office, inside we can fidget nervously about decline and talk blandly about ‘being Church’ in a new way. 

In this book Fr Vivian Boland offers a love song to the Church. He is no doe-eyed innocent, and there is none of the triumphalism that might have marked a book of this genre in previous eras. He recognises the imperfections and blemishes upon Her life, not least through the trauma of clerical abuse or the unhealthy power dynamics that have, in part, enabled them. Yet what shines through the pages of The Spirit of Catholicism is the call to be confident in loving the Church, and that is what makes this such a significant book for our time.   

Fr Boland asks on what grounds our loving the Church can be based, and he sets it within a discussion of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. We have faith in Almighty God, we hope because of him, and we love him – God is the object of each of those virtues. In a similar way the Church is constituted by God, and is directed towards God. We love the Church because it is his work, and the arena of activity for the Holy Spirit. Fr Boland lifts our eyes from mundane functionalism, which sees the Church as a convenient structure for organising mission. 

‘…it is not just information about Christ that is transmitted by the Church but his presence and his life, his grace and his Spirit.’ (p71) So we are called beyond the lazy viewpoint of those who tell us that they can relate to the person of Jesus and his teaching, but not to the Church. As the Body of Christ the Church bears him in the world, carrying the creative life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Back in the day, when I first began my studies in Theology, I remember that the work of Cardinal Avery Dulles was all the rage. We all thought his book on ‘models of the Church’ was the final word in ecclesiology, inspired as it was by the rich thinking of the Second Vatican Council. Fr Boland notes that the problem that this approach can lead to is that we end up preferring one model of the Church over another. So, I might be drawn to the Church as servant, whereas you might be drawn to the idea of Church as herald, and so forth. He stresses instead the unity of the Church, which has different faces rather than different models of existence. 

One of the reasons why I believe this book to be such a valuable gift to the whole Church at this point in our history is his exploration of the theme of what unity means, which runs like a golden thread throughout it. It’s been interesting to note the way conservative Evangelical Anglicans have been articulating their understanding of unity in recent weeks, centred as it is on the role of Scripture. The Spirit of Catholicism sets out a vision of Church unity which is alive to the call to be the sacrament of unity for the whole of humanity. As we are gathered together into the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit so the Church is the sign of the unity God intends for all people.

As one might expect and hope from a Dominican, Fr Boland draws upon the theological imagination of St Thomas Aquinas, who spoke of the Church in terms of the city: In a city, he said, unity is confirmed through four ways; through the having one head, one law, its own ‘insignia’ and one end. In the Church our ‘one head’ is Jesus Christ; our ‘one law’ is the law of faith shared by believers universally, rooted in Scripture, held by the teaching authority of the Church, and received in the individual heart; our ‘own insignia’ is the sacramental life, and in particular the gift of baptism which is the gateway into it; and our ‘one end’ is the Father, to whom the Son leads us in the power of the Spirit.  

Readers will find here a compelling and genuine vision of unity and diversity which bears the fruits of faith and service. Above all, through its pages they will find themselves falling in love again with that body which is the Bride of Christ and Sacrament of our Salvation.

Philip Barnes





Sculpting the 



Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until 11th June, 2023


The surprise of this show is that Tristram Hunt, the Director of the V&A and former Labour M.P., should describe Donatello as the greatest sculptor ever. What about all the sculptors outside of the Western European tradition? How can anyone say that sort of thing nowadays?

Maybe the V&A just got carried away by the sheer fabulousness of what they are exhibiting. Maybe early Renaissance sculpture is a hard sell. Back in the 1990s when his revised introduction to fifteenth century Italian sculpture came out, John Pope-Hennessy, who had held the same post as Tristram Hunt, cheered the increasing numbers of tourists at the Bargello in Florence as a sign that sculpture was finally getting its just desserts. But today, at least when the V&A has its excellent Donatellos in their purpose-built gallery, it’s generally possible to visit some of the greatest works in the western tradition – Tristram got that right – in peace, quiet and solitude. It would be nice if this exhibition changed that. 

The show is now in its third incarnation. It was previously in Florence, which has the largest collections of Donatello’s work, and in Berlin, which has the Pazzi Madonna. In a show with many Madonnas – not least because Donatello developed a system whereby his work could be easily copied, if not quite standardised – the Pazzi Madonna stands out. Unusually for his relief Madonnas Donatello has created a sparse group without putti. The technique is extraordinary in its flatness (though not quite the ‘squashed’ flatness of some of his works), the placing of the two figures within a recessed box (Donatello was a great one for new settings), and the way the fingers of Our Lady press into the flesh of her Son, an observation a century before Titian’s supposedly groundbreaking ‘Venus and Adonis.’ And all this technique is at the service of emotion, the innocent child held by the mother who knows a sword will pierce her own soul.

Technique and emotion are part of what set Donatello apart from his Gothic predecessors. Of course, emotion is there in the work of Giotto, almost a hundred years before Donatello, but there’s a special quality to Donatello’s emotion. Scholars have recently focussed on the violence of Florentine society – quite why they took so long is a question – so part of the extreme emotion in Donatello is a precise depiction of the society in which he lived. Indeed, though there is stylisation in Donatello, the heads of San Rossore and (?) Niccolò da Uzzano show the realism which underlies his work.

The realism is developed in two ways. First, there is a Dionysian spirit of decoration and abandonment. This culminates in the Attis-Amorino, possibly the first sculpture taken from classical mythology since the Fall of Rome. The child standing on a snake, with open trousers and with arms raised in some sort of smiling gesture, was made for the Bartolini-Salimbeni family. It was probably intended to confuse and shock in equal measure.

The second way Donatello’s realism develops is in showing grief, especially grief around the dying or dead Christ. The Martelli ‘Crucifixion,’ a late work on which the gilding, for once, hasn’t rubbed off is one example. It can be compared with Rembrandt’s great series of etchings of the same subject. The Rembrandts have a clearer design whereas it is difficult to appreciate the layout of Donatello’s work. Both have a range of figures which show the different reactions to the Lord’s death, though Donatello is the more dramatic. And in Rembrandt it is Christ who is the centre of attention, while in Donatello it is the Magdalen, wild with grief.

There is a similar focus in another late work, ‘Lamentation over the dead Christ,’ where it is the roughly hewn weeping women rather than the smooth dead Christ who catch the attention. There’s a line here through Mantegna, Raphael, and Poussin to Picasso’s ‘Guernica,’ though Donatello achieves much more than the Spaniard in a very small space.

One of Donatello’s ways to create much in little was rilievo stiacciato – squashed relief. This is one of his most extraordinary innovations. He was able to create a sense of depth and space with very slight incisions, the opposite of his great figures, represented in the show by a number of Davids and copies of his largest work, the now fractured high altar at the Basilica of St Antony in Padua. 

There are two especially fine examples of squashed relief in the exhibition. One is of the ascending Christ presenting the keys to St Peter, a novel treatment of the two subjects. It is much easier to see in this show than usually at the V&A. The other relief is one of a series of tableaux devoted to the miracles of St Anthony. In this particular miracle the saint offered a starving donkey the choice of food to fill its stomach or a consecrated host. The donkey chose the host. Not only is the donkey excellent and the story-telling clear, the variety of perspectives in the background markets and church provide both interest and a setting for a range of reality show locals. 

Maybe Donatello is the greatest.

Owen Higgs




And death shall have no dominion 

by Dylan Thomas


And death shall have no dominion.

Dead men naked they shall be one

With the man in the wind and the west moon;

When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,

They shall have stars at elbow and foot;

Though they go mad they shall be sane,

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

Though lovers be lost love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion.


And death shall have no dominion.

Under the windings of the sea

They lying long shall not die windily;

Twisting on racks when sinews give way,

Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;

Faith in their hands shall snap in two,

And the unicorn evils run them through;

Split all ends up they shan’t crack;

And death shall have no dominion.


And death shall have no dominion.

No more may gulls cry at their ears

Or waves break loud on the seashores;

Where blew a flower may a flower no more

Lift its head to the blows of the rain;

Though they be mad and dead as nails,

Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;

Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,

And death shall have no dominion.


The poetry of Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), into which he poured the vast bulk of his talent, was not explicitly religious. That is, the themes and concerns were not obvious ones of faith, piety or church life. They did, however, have a strong sense of spirituality and felt of a piece with his native Welsh culture in that they were declamatory. It’s not hard to read any of his pieces and imagine it being read aloud in a chapel or at some Sunday meeting in Wales. There is likewise a Welshness that runs through them all – the cadences, characters, ideas – with the bardic sense of hywl, a somewhat lofty, high-blown rhetoric. In the introduction to his Collected Poems (1952) Thomas described his work as ‘for the love of man and in praise of God’. This poem is rightly famous and almost a hymn with its metre and repetition. Each line has a strong beginning; see how the first stanza repeats ‘Though’ in leading to ultimate and undeniable conclusion. Contrasts too, with a blown flower and blowing rain.  It looks to the end – an individual end, the end of the world, and easily the earthly life of Christ with its eternal message that death has been swallowed up in victory by the risen, conquering Son.