Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Mary Magdalene and the Shroud of Jesus

The volcano rising behind Madelena.
The island of Pico in the Azores is named for its mountain, its peak, which is a towering volcano, the highest mountain in Portugal, except that the Azores are nowhere near Portugal, they are almost halfway across the Atlantic.  But that is by the by.

The capital of Pico is Madelena.  And in the middle of the town, overlooking the sea, is the Igreja de Santa Maria Madalena, the Church of Mary Magdalene, built in the sixteenth century and rebuilt in the nineteenth century.

I was looking round the church and noticed something odd about the statue of Mary Magdalene which stands by the altar.

Devotional card showing Santa Maria Madalena.
This devotional card which I picked up at the church illustrates what I mean.  Mary Magdalene is clutching a cloth to her breast. The cloth is the shroud of Jesus.  She has been to the tomb but has found it empty.  Only the cloth remains.

This is what Peter saw when he went into the tomb, he 'seeth the linen clothes lie.  And the napkin that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself'', says the gospel of John 20:6-7.

Piero della Francesca has Mary Magdalene in a familiar pose, 
holding a big anointing jar. 
But in John's gospel Mary Magdalene does not enter the tomb.  She does enter the tomb however in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and though none of them mention the linen clothes we can suppose that Mary Magdalene saw them there and perhaps picked them up and clutched them to her breast as portrayed by this statue of her in the church.

There is nothing odd about any of that.  It is what you would expect.

Except that this is the only time I have seen Mary Magdalene clutching the shroud of Jesus.  Maybe there are plenty of examples and I have just missed them.  But what I do see ad infinitum is Mary Magdalene holding the jar of anointing oils. This painting at Arezzo by Piero della Francesca is typical.  

Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus on the third day.  The jar announces the expectation that she will find him at the tomb.

But the shroud says something else.  It says that she has found the tomb empty.  

This is a shocking moment.  It is not a moment conveyed by the anointing jar.  But it is conveyed by the shroud.  The tomb is empty and the body is gone.  No explanation is offered.  In the original version of the gospel of Mark which ended at 16:8 there is no resurrection appearance.  Verses 16:9-20 were added very much later.  Originally there is only the empty tomb.  

That is why this statue of Mary Magdalene struck me as unusual and odd.  It directs our attention to that moment when there was nothing there.