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The Quest for Mary Magdalene

Our Lady of the Nations: Apparitions of Mary in 20th-Century Catholic Europe
Chris Maunder 
Oxford University Press 240pp £25

The Quest for Mary Magdalene: History and Legend
Michael Haag 
Profile Books 352pp £15.99

Seeing the Virgin Mary is the dream of dreams for many Catholics. Although generally ambivalent about such visions, the Vatican has investigated and pronounced some of them as true apparitions of the Virgin. At other times the papal authorities have refused to acknowledge them and tried to prevent pilgrimages to associated sites. 

In his brilliantly researched, thoughtful book, Our Lady of the Nations, Chris Maunder takes us through the reported sightings of Mary in the last century, providing rational explanations as to why the phenomena occurred and gives grounded interpretations as to why these visions happened when they did. He exposes distinctions between sightings and suggests why some were accepted and others were not. One conclusion Maunder arrives at is that the apparitions had greater impact in times of ideological conflict and rapid social change. In times of religious decline, new shrines were important. Political flux in a country was also significant. For example, there was a dramatic increase in apparitions during 1947-57 in Europe, especially Italy, which have been understood as a response to the anxieties emerging during the Cold War. Soviet influence and the rise of communist strength meant Catholics felt threatened in Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Virgin Mary was sighted in 1981; Fatima in Portugal became the focus of a sighting during the First World War; and apparitions at Ezkioga (now Ezkio), in the Basque Country took place during the Second Spanish republic.

Some visionaries became celebrities, others were shunned. Many who saw apparitions were children and 70 per cent of them were female. Girl shepherdesses aged between 12 and 16 played a leading role in the sightings. Maunder probes these phenomena: non-Catholics do not see Mary; children were considered more believable; and the charisma and expressiveness of the visionary was important, as it assisted in the belief of the locals and then of the ensuing pilgrims. Repetitions of the visions with onlookers helps to expand belief. 

More than one person seeing Mary added to the veracity of the original reports. Local priests’ support added momentum and longevity to the claims and played an essential role in verifying the visionary’s message –  maintaining the spotlight was crucial in establishing successful sites. These were often in eerie places associated with fairies (as at Lourdes) and spirits of the dead. The visions were often misinterpreted by mothers or priests as seeing the devil or seeing a witch. Hillsides, caves and grottoes were important venues for visions. Trees and bushes became motifs in sightings. In Fatima, children saw Mary hovering on an oak tree; at Beauraing, she was on a hawthorn; at Garbandal, she was among the pines. 

As Maunder reveals, the amount of Catholic dogma reintroduced at any particular sighting was significant and if the Virgin’s messages did not fit the Church’s line, the apparition was less likely to be accepted. Mariology of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and the Assumption of 1950 would influence the expression of the sightings and increase the likelihood of acceptance. 

In The Quest for Mary Magdalene, Michael Haag attempts to reveal the real historical person. He mainly uses the Bible and the gnostic gospels in his search, yet his job is made difficult by the fact that this Mary is mentioned only 14 times in the Bible, in each of the gospels. However, she is there at all the crucial times in Christ’s life: at the crucifixion, the burial and the resurrection. She was Jesus’ constant companion in his ministry throughout Galilee, yet her name was to become synonymous with whoredom. According to Haag, this we can attribute to Pope Gregory I (r.590-604), who alleged Mary Magdalene ‘used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts’. This association was reinforced using her name in the setting up of the Magdalene House for the Reception of Penitent Prostitutes in 18th-century London. Haag points out other misinterpretations, notably that the naming of  ‘magdal’ was not a place she came from, but in Aramaic means a ‘tower’, ‘beacon’ or ‘lighthouse’. Hence the connection with her strength and importance. 

By necessity, much of the book is padded out with the life of the men in the spotlight at the time: Jesus, John the Baptist, Joseph of Arimathea, Herod and  Pontius Pilate. However, Haag does manage to paint a convincing picture of Mary Magdalene as socially and financially independent, allowing her to follow Jesus in his ministry. She was not simply the repentant sinner we have been led to believe.

Julie Peakman is Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and author of Amatory Pleasures. Explorations in 18th-century Sexual Culture (Bloomsbury, 2016).

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