The Power of Absolution: Mary Magdalen: Saint and Sinner?

Lara Belfield


Figure 14: Carlo Saraceni, "Pope Saint Gregory the Great," 1610, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome, Italy. Photo Credit:

Figure 14: Carlo Saraceni, “Pope Saint Gregory the Great,” 1610, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome, Italy.
Photo Credit:

Mary Magdalen is a well-known figure from the Bible, as she was one of Jesus’ most devoted followers.  For centuries, she was incorrectly labeled as a prostitute by Biblical scholars who likely assumed that a sinful woman must be committing sins of a sexual nature.  This theory became codified by Pope Gregory the Great in his Homily XXXIII in 591 A.D (fig. 14).[1]  According to Pope Gregory, the “seven devils” that were ejected from the woman in question represented the vices, so she was obviously participating in “forbidden acts.”[2]  It was not until 1966 that the Roman Catholic Church officially rescinded the teachings that Mary Magdalen was a prostitute, although the thought still permeates popular opinion.

Bartolomeo Bulgarini, St. Mary Magdalen, 14th century. Photo Credit: Richard Stracke

Figure 15: Bartolomeo Bulgarini, St. Mary Magdalen, 14th century, Musei Capitolini, Rome.
Photo Credit: Richard Stracke

The idea that Mary Magdalen was such a grievous sinner in need of absolution was also advanced because she was connected with the story of the woman with the alabaster jar from Luke 7:36-50, although this is likely incorrect (fig. 15).  In the aforementioned Homily, Pope Gregory the Great proclaimed that the two women were one in the same, reinforcing Mary Magdalen’s status as a sinful woman.  Additionally, the idea of Mary Magdalen the prostitute provided a stark and easy contrast to the pure Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.

The public image of Mary Magdalen marginally improved during the Council of Trent, which began in 1545.  Religious art gained new ground as a way for illiterate worshippers to learn stories from the Bible.  Gregory the Great referred to religious art as the “Bible of the illiterate,” and encouraged it as a way to remind worshippers to imitate saints in both their faith and piety.[3]  As the model of a reformed sinner, Mary Magdalen was looked to as more of an example of God’s unquestionable forgiveness.  Despite the more positive outlook on her place in Christianity, this new image of Mary Magdalen only reinforced the misconception that she had been a prostitute.

[1] Jane Lahr, Searching for Mary Magdalen (New York: Welcome Books, 2006),  55.

[2] Lahr, 55.

[3] Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993),  252.