Mary magdalene

Jesus’s female disciples remain women of mystery

Is there a patron saint of conjecture? Perhaps it is a name known only to Bible scholars, who have rich cause to guard it jealously. Even if such a saint is invoked by the academy alone, the petitioning must be pretty constant. Lucky, then, that this account of the early female followers of Jesus is jointly authored, for it takes more than one person to dream up the vocabulary required for 200 pages of guesswork. As Joan Taylor and Helen Bond admit in their introduction: ‘Sometimes there’s not much to go on and we’ll need to use our imaginations.’ In the 184 pages which follow, we find all the usual

The downfall of the French middle class

The chesty Corsican taxi driver was giving me his earnest appraisal of the way things were headed in France politically. On the right we were passing the battlefield of Aquae Sextiae where the Roman general Gaius Marius, commanding 37,000 legionaries, massacred a 100,000-strong Teutonic horde thought to be headed for Italy after laying waste to northern Spain. Then, on the left, the church of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume with its fragment of Mary Magdalene’s cranium displayed in a spookily lit showcase. Later, turning south, we would pass through the countryside of Pagnol’s childhood, now split by the motorway. And a bit further on — glimpsed through roadside trees at Aubagne — the Foreign

Celebrating Jesus’s female followers: Names of the Women, by Jeet Thayil, reviewed

The gnostic Gospel of Mary has long been the subject of controversy, even as to which of the several Marys who feature in Jesus’s life was its author. It is generally assumed to have been Mary Magdalene, not least because it depicts her regular adversary, St Peter, refusing to credit a woman’s testimony. In Names of the Women, Jeet Thayil challenges Peter, along with 2,000 years of church tradition, by placing Mary Magdalene and 14 other women at the very heart of the gospel story. His intention to retell pivotal incidents from a female perspective is evident from the opening words ‘Mary, write,’ which are repeated in various forms throughout

The life of Artemisia Gentileschi is made for Netflix, but it’s the art that really excites

‘It’s true, it’s true, it’s true.’ Over and over she said it. ‘E vero, e vero, e vero.’ It’s true he raped me. It’s true I was a virgin. It’s true all I say. Even under judicial torture, even with cords wrapped around her fingers and pulled tight, she did not waver. ‘E vero.’ These words, spoken by the 17-year-old Artemisia Gentileschi, have come down to us in a trial transcript of 1612. This haunting document, never seen outside the state archives in Rome, will be shown for the first time in the National Gallery’s forthcoming Artemisia exhibition. Artemisia ought to have opened this month. Curator Letizia Treves has been

Obscure object of desire | 16 August 2018

It is always interesting to see what art historians get up to when none of the rest of us is looking. It is hard to know what the inspiration for The Mummy’s Foot and the Big Toe can possibly have been, but if this very short book offers the kind of approach that will go down well in the enclosed world of the academic conference, Alan Krell might find the common reader a tougher nut to crack. Having said that, however, those with a taste for such things will probably find plenty to enjoy in a book that ranges from the bare foot as symbol of freedom to the foot

Man of mystery | 12 April 2018

‘If you look at walls soiled with a variety of stains or at stones with variegated patterns,’ Leonardo da Vinci advised fellow painters, ‘you will therein be able to see a resemblance to various landscapes graced with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, great valleys and hills in many combinations.’ By an irony of history, Leonardo (1452–1519) has come to resemble that stained wall: a Rorschach blot in which viewers discern phantoms of their own imagination. This is, of course, to some extent the fate of all celebrities, and Leonardo was the first true artist celeb — the forerunner of a long line descending through his younger contemporaries Michelangelo and Raphael

Heaven and earth | 28 March 2018

In Nicolas Poussin’s ‘Noli Me Tangere’ (1653) Christ stands with his heel on a spade. He appears, in his rough allotment smock and sandals, to be digging up carrots. In Abraham Janssens oil painting (c.1620), Christ strides among parsnips and pumpkins, cauliflowers and marrows. Mary Magdalene kneels in an artichoke bed. In Fra Angelico’s fresco version — or, rather, vision — for San Marco in Florence (c.1438–50), Christ shoulders a hoe as he hovers above a millefiore carpet of wildflowers. His pristine robes give him away. No gardener would wear white to turn the compost. The Noli Me Tangere scene is the loveliest in the cycle of Christian paintings that

Original sin | 15 March 2018

This biopic of Mary Magdalene is a feminist retelling that may well be deserved but it’s so dreary and unremarkable that the fact it is well intentioned and even, perhaps, necessary can’t come through and win the day. Or even part of the day. Just the morning, say. Directed by Garth Davis (Lion), and written by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, this is, according to the bumf, the Mary of the original gospels rather than the repentant sinner and ‘prostitute’, which is what, in truth, I always had her down as, but then I did get most of my learning from Jesus Christ Superstar. I now know, however, that ‘fallen

Vice and virtue

‘Can the ultimate betrayal ever be forgiven?’ screams the publicity for The Judas Passion, transforming a Biblical drama into a spears-and-sandals soap opera in a sentence. Thankfully, this really isn’t the premise of composer Sally Beamish and poet David Harsent’s new oratorio. Instead, the two authors pose a more interesting problem: is betrayal still betrayal when it’s divinely ordained, the price of salvation? A performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony this week celebrated the innocent joys of heaven; The Judas Passion invited us to count their sinful cost. You see them before you hear them. The 30 pieces of silver catch the light as they hang suspended as part of the

The GP charged around to my side of the table and roved her hand all over my pubic area

On Friday morning I was peeing razor blades so I rang up the doctor and was given an appointment after lunch. The surgery was at the top of a dingy staircase in an ancient, dilapidated village house. Except for some magazines spread out on a table, the waiting room might have been a comfortably furnished private sitting room. The woman with whom I am staying speaks better French than me and she came along to translate if necessary. We sat down on one of the sofas, and while we waited she picked up a magazine and was immediately absorbed by beach photos of celebrity couples. I made a snobbish remark

Red for danger

‘Gentlemen prefer blondes,’ Anita Loos pronounced, ‘but gentlemen marry brunettes.’ Quite what they do with redheads she never revealed (and I’ve often wondered), but with Red: A Natural History of the Redhead, Jacky Colliss Harvey sets out to discover everything — what it takes to make a redhead, where in the world they come from and why they exist at all; whether redheads are actually different or just treated differently; how they got their reputation, what that reputation might be and whether they deserve it. The history begins some 40,000 years ago, we are told, when the gene for red hair was carried from ‘the grasslands of Central Asia’ to

No one in the Bible has been as elaborately misrepresented as Mary Magdalene

How would the real Mary Magdalene have reacted to her posthumous reputation? Not very kindly, one suspects. Our only historical source, the New Testament, does not even hint that she was a prostitute, and she’s unlikely to have been placated by Christians telling her: ‘It’s OK, we think you were a reformed whore.’ No one in the Bible has been so elaborately misrepresented. In addition to not being an ex-prostitute, Mary of Magdala was not Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who anoints the feet of Jesus with ‘about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume’ and then wipes it up with her hair. Nor was