Mary Magdalene has Returned

Meeting the Skull of the Magdaline

by Deborah Rose ©2005

I followed the legendary trail of Mary Magdalene in the South of France for many years. Twice I gathered a group of fellow seekers and took them to her holy sites. The highlight of the second journey was the Magdalene’s feast day activities in the town of St Maximen where every year her skull is ceremonially processed throughout the streets.

In a story recounted by the medieval bestseller The Golden Legend, Mary Magdalene arrived in the south of France seven years after the Crucifixion. It is said that she preached at the pagan temple in Marseilles and then lived out her life in a grotto high up in the mountain of Sainte Baume. When her death was at hand, angels carried her into the nearby town where her dear friend Maximinius had established a church. She died in his arms after receiving communion and last rites

The present day town is now called St Maximin and it was to that town, just northeast of Marseilles, where we were headed. I had promised our group of Magdalene seekers that we would find the relic of her skull in the crypt of the once fine but now faded basilica

On my first visit to the basilica, I had located the fabled skull at the end of a small cave-like room in the crypt. I remember peering through the protective iron bars and seeing first a strange helmet of golden locks cascading around “ her face.” The locks joined at the area of her heart and formed a small cameo of Christ. To those like myself not acquainted with the aesthetic of European Catholicism – the effect was jarring. Here was an icon that was simultaneously romantic and repulsive!

And in contrast to the golden locks, the skull was black. Hmmm. Why wasn’t it white? I sought out the docent and he patiently explained that the skull had darkened because decaying flesh had adhered to the bone.

I was jarred yet again. The symbolism dealt by the vagaries of chance was impossibly correct. That is, the Magdalene’s role was to play out the sinner, mired in the “dark” world of the flesh, in counterpoint to the ever-pure Virgin.

All these details ….

I explained to the group along with a description of the crypt and where exactly we would find the skull. But when we arrived at the basilica the skull of Mary Magdalene was upstairs next to the main altar. Held aloft by a quartet of angels, it was sitting in a golden carriage surrounded by bouquets of white lilies.

Joining the other pilgrims gathered around the skull, we gazed with fascination at her gaping eyeholes and stubby teeth.

Within the crowd I noticed a face familiar from a recent TV documentary. It was Susan Haskins, the Englishwoman who wrote Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor. She was there with her husband and a camerawoman filming the feast day events for an upcoming BBC special on the Magdalene. Later she would interview each of us for the film but now she acted as our unofficial tour guide telling us that the skull was in the main altar because it was to be processed that night, July 21st, throughout the streets of St Maximin.

After agreeing to meet up later, we parted company and our group continued exploring the basilica. The oratory, the traditional large wooden pulpit, was particularly ornate and topped with a carved sculpture of the Magdalene “in ecstasy,” a reference to the joy she experienced approaching her death and the ultimate reunion with her beloved teacher and friend.

Behind the organ we found a painting of Mary Magdalene walking next to Jesus on the way to Golgotha. Her hair as usual was long, wild and red. But the width of her shoulders! This Magdalene was brawny with large muscular arms, supporting a much smaller Jesus who was weighted down by the cross. I was reminded of the alternative interpretation of the word Magdalene. Most historians say the word refers to her birthplace but others have suggested it is an epithet meaning “tower of strength.”

A half-hour away …

In the tiny village called the Hostelerie are other interesting and remarkable portraits of Mary Magdalene. It was there we headed next, piling back into our rented minivan for the winding and beautiful drive up to the mountain of St Baume.

The Hostelerie is the base camp before the ascent to the grotto of Sainte Baume. There is a cafe, a gift shop and a small Dominican chapel where nuns come several times a day to pray to Mary Magdalene. In the chapel are a series of murals painted by an artist named Montenard. They depict a slender red headed woman standing at the edge of the sea talking to fishermen who are listening in a state of pure rapture. Another painting shows her in the wilderness with arms extended blessing a shepherd or farmer.

While the medieval legend insists on Magdalene as a fallen woman who spent her life repenting in the grotto, these images around St Maximen and St Baume depict another Magdalene, a woman of great courage, a teacher, alone, empowered by her own visions and life experience. This rendering of Mary Magdalene was not part of my Catholic education but surprisingly this view of her has been consistently held within the Dominican tradition since the 13th century. Susan Haskins told us she would be traveling on to Italy to document similar such images within the Dominican monasteries. And it was a Dominican ceremony we were about to witness next.

When we returned …

Mass was being said in the basilica of St Maximen and each of us was given a small white candle surrounded by a little blue and white paper lantern. Devotional Provencal singing began and, on cue, a group of men approached the carriage and placed yet another golden facemask over the skull. They hoisted her up and slowly carried her out of the church. The candles were lit and after an enthusiastic but long-winded speech by the mayor, the procession began snaking its way through the streets of St Maximin.

The endpoint of the procession was the convent and when we arrived, white robed nuns greeted all of us with high-spirited laughter. The carriage was carried into the courtyard of the convent and set down next to a large lit torch. Without much ado the facemask was yanked off to reveal once again the blackened skull.

“She” was welcomed as the honored guest. A series of speeches was directed to the skull. There was more singing, heart felt devotional singing and the nuns played sweet and haunting music on recorders.

Amidst the flickering candlelight, I kept looking and looking again. She seemed to be there, a fully present and authentic living energy. I looked around, slightly embarrassed . Everyone in our group had an expression of wonder and innocence on their faces.

No matter that the Magdalene had long been dead. No matter that the skull may not have been hers. She was there. I thought I saw her row of stubby teeth open and close. She was smiling. I am sure of it.

I knew she knew … her time had come. Finally, after almost two thousand years, some of us, maybe many of us, were ready to acknowledge her as the brilliant and enlightened being she truly had been.