03.02.06, Jansen, Making of the Magdalen

Main Article Content

Dr. Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.006


Jansen, Katherine Ludwig. The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. Pp. xviii, 389. ISBN: 0-691-08987-6.
ISBN: 0-691-05850-4.

Reviewed by:
Dr. Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby
Ben-Gurion University

Katherine Ludwig Jansen's The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages is an exciting book. Jansen tells the fascinating tale of how the cult of Mary Magdalen in the Later Middle Ages evolved according to social, cultural, and political agendas. The book combines different sources -- unpublished sermons, hagiographical treatises, visual images, and administrative and judicial records -- for a well-crafted picture of the Magdalen's role in medieval spirituality.

Jansen focuses on the cult of the Magdalen in Provence and Italy during the High Middle Ages, when it was reaching its peak, until 1517, when changes in the Church dictated its decline. The introduction presents a thorough review of the scholarship on the Magdalen, which has been experiencing a certain renaissance in recent years. Its exposition of the function of the book and its structure is supplemented by a useful explanation of the variety of sources used. Chapter one introduces the heroine of the book, Mary Magdalen, to the non-specialist and illuminates the author's own conception of the Magdalen. Jansen then divides her book into four parts: "The Mendicant Magdalen" discusses the part played by the mendicants in building up the image of the Magdalen and their veneration of the saint. "The Wages of Sin" explores the negative image of the Magdalen as a symbol of vanity and lust. "Do Penance" covers the image of the Magdalen as a model for penitence. And "Responses" discusses the lay response to the preaching of the friars and the popular reception of the Magdalen.

Three chapters of "The Mendicant Magdalen" are dedicated to the image of the Magdalen as the apostolorum apostola, as a symbol of the active life, and as a role model for the contemplative life. This part of the book deals with such central questions as the preaching of the Magdalen. Although women were supposed to be silent in the church, visual and literary evidence portrays Mary Magdalen preaching from the pulpit. Points of similarities are drawn between the Magdalen and another female saint, Catherine of Alexandria. Another interesting matter is the friars' self-identification with the Magdalen, explained by Jansen as follows: "In their sermons the friars evoked Mary Magdalen, representing at once their identification with the saint and their own submissive and obedient relationship to the Church." A visual manifestation of this connection is their identification with Mary Magdalen clinging to the cross. Following the imitatio Christi, the friars created an imitatio Magdalen. Jansen notes, however, a difference between the Franciscans' emotional and physical embrace of Christ's foot and the Dominicans' more restrained and tempered posture. Mary Magdalen was also considered a model for the vita attiva, for the friars and as a mirror for the laity. Credited with acts of mercy and charity, she became the patron saint of several institutions, such as confraternities, female charity communities, hospitals and orphanages, that were dedicated to her cult.

The fourth chapter introduces Mary Magdalen as a symbol for the vita contemplativa, as a model for scholars, nuns and laywomen, mystics and visionaries. A parallel was drawn between the Magdalen's retreat to the cave of La Sainte-Baume and St. Francis's stigmatization at La Verna.

In "The Wages of Sin," Jansen explores the negative features of the Magdalen constructed by the mendicants: "how and why the friars used the symbol of the Magdalen to attack the vanity, folly, and sexual licentiousness ascribed to all women" and "how the preachers attempted to control and subject the female sex while using the symbol of Mary Magdalen." The Magdalen is presented as a model of vanity in conjunction with the friars' preaching campaign against excessive ornamentation. Their disapproval of her is connected with their general condemnation of female vanity and destructive nature. Another sin linked to female nature according to medieval theology is luxuria. Associated with prostitution and leprosy, the Magdalen became a patron saint of institutions for repentant prostitutes and a role model whom "strayed women" were enjoined to emulate.

In "Do Penance," Jansen moves on to the role of the Magdalen as a symbol of penitence, the embodiment of hope and salvation. She was a model for the medieval theory of penitence, including contrition, confession, satisfaction, and absolution. In "Responses," Jansen focuses on Mary Magdalen as a model for female and male devotion and on the diverse reactions of the laity to the different images of the Magdalen that the friars presented in their sermons. The range of reactions included reception, interpretation, rejection, and resistance. Listeners were able to construct their "own" Magdalens, sometimes creating an association between the Magdalen and the Virgin Mary. There were reactions to the scriptural Magdalen and to the legendary saint constructed by the mendicants. Other issues covered by Jansen include the literary and theological discussion on the Magdalen's evangelization of Provence and the foundation of religious communities based on the Magdalen's example. A final discussion focuses on the cultivation of the Magdalen at the court of Charles II of Anjou.

Two original features of this book should be singled out: its use of sermon literature and of visual images. Jansen exposes the potential of sermons as a mirror for society's religious, social, and cultural aspirations, demonstrating how sermon literature could be used effectively in order to illuminate cultural issues. She uses a variety of unpublished sermons, exposing their content for the first time. A special merit of this book is its employment of diverse visual sources, such as fresco cycles, altarpieces, panel and predella paintings, and manuscript illuminations. Jansen was able to trace some rather obscure images that portray the Magdalen in an unexpected manner, and she has combined them with works by more celebrated artists such as Giotto and Botticelli. A case in point is the choice of the fresco "Mary Magdalen with Bishop Teobaldo Pontano" for the handsome and attractive cover page. This fresco effectively demonstrates the centrality of the colossal figure of Magdalen, the humble position and diminished size of the Bishop, and the imitatio Magdalen discussed in the book. It is one example of Jansen's unusual sensitivity and clever usage of art.

A final word should be said about the fine writing style in this book. Each chapter opens with an exciting tale, an intriguing anecdote or a provocative quotation, effectively pulling the reader into the topic of the chapter. Jansen then weaves together different types of evidence in order to construct her general argument. A useful summary and the raising of a new question conveniently leads the reader into the next chapter, making Jansen's book a pleasure to read.

This book will appeal to many readers in the fields of history, sermon studies, gender studies, and art history and all who take interest in medieval spirituality.

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Author Biography

Dr. Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby

Ben-Gurion University