Representations of Women in Film & Television: Mary Magdalene

Updated on January 2, 2018
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Darla Sue Dollman, B.A., M.F.A., is a freelance writer with 39 years combined experience as a journalist, author, photographer, and editor.

Appearance of Jesus Christ to Mary Magdalena

Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov (1806-1858).
Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov (1806-1858). | Source

According to John MacArthur's Twelve Extraordinary Women, "Mary Magdalene is one of the best-known and least-understood names in scripture. Biblical scripture deliberately draws a curtain of silence over much of her life and personal background."

MacArthur's assessment of representations of the life of Mary Magdalene and her role in the story of Jesus is both accurate and intriguing. There is little about her past that is clearly known, except that Jesus somehow, at some point, saved her from possession by seven demons.

It is now believed that historical connections between Mary Magdalene and adulterous behavior, or prostitution, as portrayed in historic works of art and literature, were tenuous associations based on her name, one of the most common female names in biblical times.

Mary means "wise woman" or "lady" and is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Miriam. The name Mary is used at least 40 times in the Christian Bible's New Testament. Even more if you count the name Miriam.

There are seven women named Mary mentioned in the Christian Bible, including the mother of Jesus, and a woman named Mary who is mentioned in the verse previous to the one that introduces Mary Magdalene, the woman most often connected with Mary Magdalene, the "sinner," whose description was later changed to "prostitute," the woman who used her hair to bathe the feet of Jesus with oil from a jar.

Mary Magdalene is believed to be clearly separated from these women because her name includes the name of the city she came from, Magdala, the prosperous fishing village near the Sea of Galilee, but her association with prostitution, adultery, and sin remains a popular theme for television documentaries exploring the progression of Mary Magdalene's image through time.

The penitent Mary Magdalen

The penitent Mary Magdalen (c. 1598) by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610).
The penitent Mary Magdalen (c. 1598) by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). | Source

The Real Mary Magdalene, a Documentary (2010)

"This saint is also a sinner, a seductress, and a whore, her voluptuous breasts revealed for all to see," according to the narrator of The Real Mary Magdalene. Although the obvious goal of this documentary is to dispel the myths surrounding Mary Magdalene's identity, the show relies heavily on some of the sensationalist aspects of past representations.

The documentary begins with an exploration of early works of religious art that portray Mary Magdalene as the woman with the jar of oil, works such as Bernardio Luini's The Magdalene (1525), and Caravaggio's The Penitent Magdalene (1597).

The documentary explains that in the Bible, the woman with the jar, mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, is called "sinner," and not "prostitute." Her later connection to prostitution in art, literature, and early Church dogma is believed to serve two purposes. First, by presenting Mary Magdalene as a prostitute she becomes the perfect foil for the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. Second, the leap from sinner to prostitute in the story of the woman with the jar was used as an attack against Goddess-based religions.

Bernardino Luini - The Magdalen

Mary Magdalene by Bernardino Luini (1480-1532). Created circa 1525. National Gallery of Art.
Mary Magdalene by Bernardino Luini (1480-1532). Created circa 1525. National Gallery of Art. | Source

Mary Magdalene as a Woman of Intelligence and Authority

In yet another documentary on Mary Magdalene, The Real Magdalene shown on the National Geographic Channel, it becomes clear that portrayals of authority connected to the character of Mary Magdalene in films is an issue, as it is in The Bible. According to the Gospel of Mark in the Christian Bible, there were three groups of women that figured prominently in the story of Jesus, including friends and relatives of Jesus; women who traveled with him under the guidance of Mary Magdalene and provided financial resources; and women who were with Jesus when he was executed, the women who stayed as close as they could to Jesus when all of the men who followed him fled the scene of his execution. These women were not "camp followers." They were portrayed as highly respected by Jesus.

However, there were two groups of followers traveling with Jesus; one led by Mary Magdalene, which included Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward, according to the Gospel of Luke; and the group of men who were led by Peter. The words and actions of the men were recorded in great detail, but the words and actions of the women were only recorded in the context of their relationship with Jesus. When the story of Jesus ends, so does the story of Mary Magdalene.

In addition to traveling with Jesus and leading the group of women who followed him, Mary Magdalene was also present at the burial of Jesus and watched as he was placed in the tomb. She returned to the place where his followers were staying to gather the herbs required for a proper burial. She received a message from an Angel, and returned to the tomb where she witnessed the resurrection of Jesus.

Through this documentary, it becomes clear that Mary Magdalene was a remarkably powerful witness--she witnessed the healing powers of Jesus, the teachings of Jesus, the death of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, she is a woman of authority both through her position with the followers and her authority as a witness. Her importance and authority in the Jesus story was gradually restored, and these changes in perception are reflected in representations of Mary Magdalene in film.

Yvonne Ellman as Mary Magdalene and Ted Neeley as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar

Publicity photo of American entertainers Yvonne Elliman and Ted Neeley promoting their roles in the 1973 feature film Jesus Christ Superstar. Yvonne Ellman portrayed Mary Magdalene for four years.
Publicity photo of American entertainers Yvonne Elliman and Ted Neeley promoting their roles in the 1973 feature film Jesus Christ Superstar. Yvonne Ellman portrayed Mary Magdalene for four years. | Source

Jesus Christ, Superstar (1969-2000)

Jesus Christ, Superstar is a controversial and emotionally powerful rock opera originally released as an album in 1969 with the part of Jesus sung by Ian Gillan of the rock band Deep Purple. Although there have been numerous outstanding performances of the show, this article will focus on the version performed in 2000 starring Jerome Pardon as Judas as Pardon's performance best represents the intent of the show as expressed by its creators.

Jesus Christ, Superstar is the story of Jesus told from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve disciples, the man who sold the identity of Jesus to the Chief Priests for 30 pieces of silver, whose name, payment, and kiss are now universal symbols of treason.

Jesus is portrayed as a politician who lost control of his political movement and Judas as a disgruntled follower, desperate to save the movement, doomed to watch it fail. Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a prostitute and partially to blame for the failure of the movement.

Judas watches in dismay as the movement starts to unravel, frequently demanding attention from Jesus (Glenn Carter) that is given to Mary Magdalene, instead. In the song "Heaven on Their Minds" Judas cries out "They think they've found the new Messiah, and they'll hurt you when they find they're wrong," which is both ironic and profound considering Judas is the man who feels hurt by Jesus's neglect and ultimately betrays Jesus.

The interaction between Judas and Mary Magdalene (Renee Castle) is chilling. At one point, Judas grabs her by the arm and throws her down the stairs as he sings, "It's not that I object to her profession, but it doesn't seem to square with what you do or say." Judas implies that Mary is not only a prostitute and having an intimate relationship with Jesus, but that she is also seducing him into a life of hypocrisy.

Mary Magdalene does not respond to the harassment, but continues to show love and compassion for Jesus. In her mind, she owes Jesus her life. He saved her from seven demons and restored sanity to her world.

The lyrics in her songs, however, continue to imply that she was a prostitute before she met him. In the song "I Don't Know How to Love Him," Mary Magdalene says, "I don't see why he moves me. He's a man, he's just a man, and I've had so many men before, in very many ways, he's just one more."

The Last Temptation of Christ 1988

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

The Oscar-nominated film The Last Temptation of Christ is an adaptation of the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis depicting the life of Jesus and his emotional struggles with temptation, lust, doubt, depression, and a deep longing for normalcy. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film includes flashbacks and dream sequences, but still manages a stark, shocking sense of realism.

Mary Magdalene, however, is portrayed with all of the connections that historians fought hard to disconnect. It is assumed that she had a prior relationship with Jesus in this film, though this relationship is not explained. She is also portrayed as the adulteress who is saved from stoning, and the sinner/prostitute who washes the feet of Jesus.

At the end of the film, Jesus and Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) are married. He has somehow escaped crucifixion. They are shown making love, and they have a loving family relationship with children. However, the viewer quickly realizes this is all a dream. Nevertheless, Mary Magdalene is once again seen as a sinful, and therefore weak woman.

Monica Bellucci as "Magdalen" in The Passion of the Christ (2004)

The Passion of The Christ (2004)

Also known as The Passion, this film focuses on the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus. In keeping with the tradition of films about Jesus, this movie was voted the most controversial film ever by Entertainment Weekly. It generated a tremendous amount of controversy for Director Mel Gibson and his post-production racist remarks, and sent actor Jim Caviezel's career into a temporary downward spiral.

Although Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) has a large role in the film, Gibson chose to combine her identify with yet another woman in the Bible, the adulteress, for added drama.

The Pericope de Adultera, or story of the adulteress, is a passage from the Gospel of John describing a woman who is accused of adultery and dragged into the street to be stoned to death.

The story of the adulteress is important to a film about crucifixion for its message regarding blame, justice, mercy, and condemnation, but the decision to combine her story with the story of Mary Magdalene once again defines Mary Magdalene in terms of the man in the story--she commits a shameful sin, one that delegates her to a status similar to the prostitute, and it is once again implied that she is following Jesus due to their intimate relationship and not her intelligence and leadership abilities.

The Last Supper Detail from the Da Vinci Code

Da Vinci's The Last Supper cropped to show the V shape discussed in the film The Da Vinci Code.
Da Vinci's The Last Supper cropped to show the V shape discussed in the film The Da Vinci Code. | Source

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

The Da Vinci Code, based on the novel by Dan Brown, is equally controversial. It is a contemporary, fictional story. The focus of the story is the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus and how details of this relationship--proven to be facts rather than theories during the film--could destroy the Catholic Church and have a profound, lasing impact on the entire world.

In the film, the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is a secret protected for centuries by The Priory of Sion and clues to the relationship are hidden in the works of Leonardo Da Vinci. The most important clue is in Da Vinci's masterpiece The Last Supper, which appears to portray a woman seated beside Jesus at the table. The two figures form a V, representing the sacred feminine, the vessel, the Holy Grail. The message of the film is that Mary Magdalene is the wife of Jesus, who gave birth to the child of Jesus, creating a sacred bloodline.

In spite of the many controversies surrounding the film, it succeeds in elevating Mary Magdalene to the highest role yet in the Jesus story--she is more than his follower, she is partner in a loving relationship, and an important part of the movement to bring love and peace to a troubled world.

In a relatively short amount of time, following the progression of beliefs from the 1960s to 2006, Mary Magdalene was transformed in film and television from a prostitute who contributed to Jesus's downfall to his loving wife and mother of his children.

Mary Magdalene

This painting by  Piero di Cosimo, c. 1500-1510 is also intriguing because it portrays Mary Magdalene as intelligent and a scholar.
This painting by Piero di Cosimo, c. 1500-1510 is also intriguing because it portrays Mary Magdalene as intelligent and a scholar. | Source

Sources:

Jesus Christ, Superstar. Writer. Andrew Lloyd Webber. Dir. Gale Edwards, Nick Morris. Perf. Glenn Carter, Jerome Pradon, Renee Castle. Really Useful Films: 2000. Running time: 161 min.
• Macarthur, John. Twelve Extraordinary Women. Thomas Nelson, Inc. Nashville: 2005.
The Da Vinci Code. Dir. Ron Howard. Perf. Tom Hanks, AudreyTautou. Columbia Pictures: 2006. Running Time: 149 min.
The Last Temptation of Christ. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey. Universal Pictures: 1988. Running Time: 164 min.
The Passion of The Christ. Dir. Mel Gibson. Perf. Jim Caviezel, Monica Belluci. Icon Productions: 2004. Running Time: 127 min.
The Real Mary Magdalene: Documentary. National Geographic Channel. Aired Dec. 10, 2010.

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