De Maria Magdalena: a drama of Mary standing and weeping

About Mary Magdalene {De Maria Magdalena}, written in Latin about 1200, responds to the scriptural text of Mary Magdalene standing and weeping at Jesus’ empty tomb. De Maria Magdalena circulated widely in western Europe from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. While probably written for Cistercian monks in France, medieval manuscripts identify De Maria Magdalena as a homily of the early church father Origen.[1] It isn’t your typical father’s homily. It’s theatrical lectio divina. De Maria Magdalena displays from dramatic reading of scripture the beautiful word in the mind of men.

De Maria Magdalena, wood sculpture

De Maria Magdalena is both highly rhetorical and intensely emotional. It begins:

Mary stood weeping outside the grave-marker. We have heard, brethren, of Mary standing outside the grave-marker. We have heard of her weeping. Let us see, if we can, why she stands, and see why she weeps. May her standing edify. May her weeping edify us.

{ Maria stabat ad monumentum foris plorans. Audivimus fratres Mariam ad monumentum foris stantem, audivimus plorantem, videamus si possumus cur staret, videamus et cur ploraret. Prosit illius stare. Prosit nobis illius plorare. }[2]

While written in prose, De Maria Magdalena uses language poetically with emotive rhythms and sounds. It continues:

Love caused her to stand. Sorrow forced her to weep.

{ Amor faciebat eam stare, dolor cogebat eam plorare. }[3]

De Maria Magdalena stands as much as a homily as it weeps like a planctus. Both generic identifiers are incomplete. Mary stood outside the marker. From hearing the scriptural passage, we are to see it and then live it in Christian understanding.

Like the psalms, De Maria Magdalena presents different voices within one mind. The reader’s emphatic identification with Mary prompts emotional inferences:

At first, her sorrow was caused by the loss of the living, but at least she was somewhat consoled by believing that she was in possession of the dead. Now, however, she could feel no consolation for that sorrow because she could not find his body. She even feared that the love for her master might grow cold in her breast, whereas by seeing him again it would be rekindled.

{ Prima fuit causa doloris quia vivum perdiderat. Sed de hoc dolore aliquantulam consolacionem habebat quia mortuum se retinere credebat. Nunc autem se de isto dolore consolari non poterat quia corpus defuncti non inveniebat. Metuebat enim ne amor magistri sui in suo pectore frigesceret quo viso recalesceret. }

As in common among men throughout history, the reader identifies with the woman and depreciates men:

And thus totally oppressed by sorrow of mind and body, she became exhausted and knew not what to do. For what could this woman do except weep, she who felt intolerable grief but who found no comforter, not even Peter and John who had come with her to the tomb but who had departed when they found no body there.

But Mary stood outside the tomb weeping, almost despairing in her tears. Peter and John were afraid and did not stay. Mary was not afraid because she conceived of nothing beyond this which could frighten her. She had lost her master whom she loved in such a way that, without him, she could love nothing and hope for nothing.

{ Et ideo tota posita in dolore mente et corpore deficiens et quid ageret nesciebat. Quid enim mulier ista poterat agere nisi flere que intollerabilem habebat dolorem et nullum inveniebat consolatorem. Petrus quidem et Iohannes venerant cum ea ad monumentum sed non invento corpore ad seipsos redierunt.

Maria vero stabat ad monumentum foris plorans et quasi plorando desperans. Petrus et Iohannes timuerunt et ideo non steterunt. Maria non timebat quia nichil suspicabatur sibi superesse pro quo timere debebat. Perdiderat enim magistrum suum quem ita singulariter diligebat ut preter illum nichil posset diligere et nichil posset sperare. }

The reader shifts without textual concern to first-person address to Mary:

O Mary, what hope, or what purpose, or what emotion kept you standing alone at the tomb? You came before the disciples {Peter and John}, stood with them and remained after they departed. Why did you do so? Were you wiser than they? Or did you love more than they since you were not afraid as they were?

{ O Maria quid spei aut quid consilii, aut quid cordis erat tibi ut sola stares ad monumentum? Discipulis abeuntibus tu ante illos venisti et cum illis stetisti et post illos remansisti. Cur hoc fecisti? Sapiebas plus illis an diligebas plus quam illi quia non metuebas ut illi. }

The reader also hears Mary talking to herself in the “poor dear” mode of men’s identification with women:

I have no wish to see the angels. I have no wish to remain with the angels because they only add to my sorrow. They cannot end it completely. If they begin to tell me many things and if I should wish to respond to all of them, I fear that they would impede my love more than liberate it. … Woe to me in my misery. Where shall I go? Where has my beloved gone? I looked for him in the tomb and I did not find him. I called to him and he did not answer me. … Alas, alas, where has my beloved gone? Where does my love hide, where is my delight, why have you abandoned me, my savor?

O sorrows, O intolerable anguish! These afflictions surround me and I do not know what choice to make. If I leave the tomb, I do not know where to go. Wretched me, I do not know where to search. To leave the tomb is death to me. Yet to stand at the tomb is an incurable sorrow. It is better for me to watch over the tomb of my lord than to go far away from it. For if I go far away, perhaps when I return I shall find him dead or missing. Therefore, I shall stay and die here so that I shall be buried near the tomb of my lord. O how blessed my body will be entombed near my master!

{ Nolo angelos videre, nolo cum angelis manere quia possunt dolorem meum augere non penitus delere. Si coeperint michi multa narrare et si ego voluero ad omnia eis respondere: timeo quod amorem meum magis impediant quam expediant. … Heu me miseram! Quid agam? Quo ibo? Quo abiit dilectus meus? Quesivi ilium in monumento et non inveni; vocavi illum et non respondit michi. … Heu, heu quo abiit dilectus meus? Ubi latet amor meus, ubi est dulcedo mea, cur me derelinquisti, salus mea?

O dolores, o angustie intolerabiles. Angustie enim sunt michi undique et quid eligam ignoro. Si a monumento recessero, nescio quo vadam, nescio infelix ubi requiram. Discedere a monumento mors michi est, stare ad monumentum irremediabilis dolor michi est. Melius est michi sepulcrum domini mei custodire quam ab eo longius abire. Si enim longius abiero, forte eum sublatus aut defunctum inveniam cum rediero. Stabo igitur et hic moriar ut saltem iuxta sepulcrum domini mei sepeliar. O quam beatum erat corpus meum si fuerit sepultum prope magistrum meum. }[4]

The reader imagines the angels telling Mary to stop weeping. The reader imagines Mary refusing to obey them. As is common in prayer, the reader then speaks to Jesus:

O dearest Jesus, … how could this loving woman have offended the sweetness of your heart that you withdraw from her so? We have not heard that she committed any sin except that she came early in the morning to the sepulcher before the others, carrying oils to anoint your body, and when she did not find you in the tomb she ran and told your disciples. They came, saw, and departed. But this woman stood and wept. If this be sin, we can not deny that she committed it.

{ O dulcissime ihesu … in quo post ea offendit dulcedinem cordis tui amatrix tua quia sic recedis ab ea. Nos post ea nullum peccatum aliud audivimus ab ea nisi quod valde mane ante omnes venit ad monumentum ferens unguenta quibus ungeret corpus tuum et cum non inveniret in monumento cucurrit et nunciavit discipulis tuis. Illi venerunt, viderunt, et abierunt. Hec autem stabat et plorabat. Si hec peccatum sit, negare non possumus quoniam hec ista faciebat. }

The position of “we,” the community of monks, is as an advocate for Mary Magdalene to Jesus. While that advocacy includes common patterns of gendered discourse, it’s nonetheless an extraordinary position for medieval monks to assume. Mary Magdalene was recognized as a saint in medieval Europe. She was institutionally positioned to intercede for men. But the monks, with psychological realism and deep spiritual empathy, dramatically interceded for her.

The reader prays to Jesus with attention to a small difference between what Mary said to the angels and what Mary said to Jesus. Seeking to move Jesus’ heart to compassion for Mary, the reader pleads to Jesus:

Do not consider the error of the woman but the love of your disciple when she cries and says, not in error but for the sake of love and sorrow, “Sir, if you have taken him, tell me where you have placed him.” O how knowing her ignorance; how learned her error when she said to the angels, “They have taken my lord away.” She did not say “you have taken away and you have placed,” since it was not the angels who removed you from the tomb nor put you in another place. How true were her words when she said to you, “If you have taken him away and placed him,” because it was really you who removed the body from the sepulcher and replaced it with your risen body.

{ Ne attendas ad mulieris errorem sed ad discipuli amorem quando non pro errore sed pro amore et dolore plorat et dicit. Domine si tu sustulisti eum, dicitoe michi posuisti eum. O quam scienter nescit, quam docte errat, angelis dixit tulerunt dominum meum et non dixit tulistis et posuistis quia neque angeli de monumento te detulerunt neque in aliquo loco te posuerunt. Tibi vero dixit si tu sustulisti eum et posuisti quia re vera te ipsum de monumento sustulisti et in loco ubi es te posuisti. }[5]

As Jesus needs to be persuaded, the reader understands that Mary only superficially misperceived Jesus as the gardener. Jesus is truly a gardener because he plants good seeds in the hearts of Mary and the faithful. Mary asks the gardener, but not the angels, to tell her where the body is because because she implicitly recognized the gardener to be Jesus. In her great love for Jesus, she echoed the words of Jesus to her and Martha lamenting the death of Lazarus. After the reader’s explication of these facts, Jesus should understand.

The reader imagines Mary Magdalene to be more courageously Christian than “the prince of the apostles” Peter. Meditating on the words of scripture, the reader imaginatively creates a new sacred drama:

What is this also, O good Jesus, that she says about you, “I shall carry him away.” Joseph of Aramathea was afraid and did not dare remove your body from the cross except at night and only with Pilate’s approval. However, Mary neither waited for darkness nor showed fear. But now she boldly promises, “I shall carry him away.” O Mary, if the body of Jesus had been placed by chance in the hall of the chief priest where the prince of the apostles warmed himself by the fire, what would you have done? “I shall carry him away.” And if the handmaid guarding the gate had questioned you, what would you have done? “I shall carry him away.”

{ Quid est hoc eciam o bone ihesu quod dicit de te: Ego eum tollam. Ioseph timuit et non fuit ausus tolle corpus tuum de cruce nisi in nocte et nisi hoc peteret a pilato. Maria autem non prestolatur noctem nec veretur. Sed audacius promittit dicens: Ego eum tollam. O Maria si corpus ihesu forte positum est in atrio principis sacerdotum ubi apostolorum princeps calefaciebat se ad ignem quid factura es? Ego eum tollam. Et si ancilla hostiaria interrogavit te quid factura es? Ego eum tollam. }[6]

The reader responds emotionally to his own imagined sacred drama of Mary Magdalene, understood as a repentant prostitute:

O, the boldness of a wretched woman. O woman, a woman not welcomed anywhere, however, who asked for nothing, says fearlessly and promises absolutely, “Tell me where you have put him and I will carry him away.” O woman, how great is your constancy, how great is your faith!

{ O miserabilis mulieris audacia. O mulier non autem mulier nullum locum excipit, nihil autem peciit, sine timor? dicit, et absolute promit. Dicitoe mihi ubi posuisti eum et ego eum tollam. O mulier quam magna est constancia tua, quam magna est fides tua. }

While imagining Mary to be more courageously Christian than Peter, the reader again intercedes for her with direct address to Jesus:

I beseech you, sweet master, do not seek to prolong her desire since, for three days now, she has endured your absence, you who satisfy her hungering soul. … If you do not wish her to continue languishing on the way, then refresh and comfort the depths of her soul with your sweet taste. For you are the living bread who contains all delight and taste of sweetness in you. She will not be able to live very long in her body unless you quickly manifest yourself, you who are the life of her soul.

{ Noli quaeso dulcis magister ultra protrahere desiderium eius quia ecce iam triduo sustinet te nec habet unde satiat animam suam esurientem. … Si ergo vis ut non deficiat in via refrigera et conforta viscera anime sue dulcedine saporis tui. Tu enim es panis vivus qui habes in te omne delectamentum et omnem saporem suavitatis. Non enim diu poterit retinere vitam sui corporis nisi tu scito manifestes te vitam anime sue. }

The reader then narrates Jesus calling out to her, “Mary.” Mary turns and addresses Jesus as master. She touches him. With poetic language the reader narrates the emotional transformation:

Great sorrow is turned into great joy!

{ conversus est dolor magnus in gaudium magnum }

Regardless of men’s propensity to compete over status, that is the Christian story of Easter for Mary, Peter, and all Christians.

De Maria Magdalena concerns a scriptural text that has under-appreciated drama.  After Mary addressed the angels sitting in the tomb, she turned around and saw Jesus:

She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbi” (which means master). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

{ ἐστράφη εἰς τὰ ὀπίσω καὶ θεωρεῖ τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἑστῶτα καὶ οὐκ ᾔδει ὅτι Ἰησοῦς ἐστιν λέγει αὐτῇ Ἰησοῦς γύναι τί κλαίεις τίνα ζητεῖς ἐκείνη δοκοῦσα ὅτι ὁ κηπουρός ἐστιν λέγει αὐτῷ κύριε εἰ σὺ ἐβάστασας αὐτόν εἰπέ μοι ποῦ ἔθηκας αὐτόν κἀγὼ αὐτὸν ἀρῶ λέγει αὐτῇ Ἰησοῦς Μαριάμ στραφεῖσα ἐκείνη λέγει αὐτῷ Ἑβραϊστί ραββουνι ὃ λέγεται διδάσκαλε λέγει αὐτῇ Ἰησοῦς μή μου ἅπτου οὔπω γὰρ ἀναβέβηκα πρὸς τὸν πατέρα }[7]

If you read that scripture in its external drama, you might understand actions scripture didn’t explicitly describe. The scriptural text implies that Mary turned away from the gardener when she spoke to him about carrying the body away. Jesus apparently called out “Mary” when she had her back to him. Then she turned again and recognized the gardener as him. After she called out to him, “Rabbi,” she apparently reached out and touched him insistently. That implicit action motivates Jesus’ words, “Do not cling to me.” None of this drama was of interest to the reader in De Maria Magdalena.

De Maria Magdalena is primarily a dramatic reading of scripture in its internal, emotional dimension. The actions of standing and weeping point internally to the emotion of love. In De Maria Magdalena, love and closely associated emotions motivate movement among different persons’ voices. All the voices are inflected with men’s deep preference for women. With its exquisitely constructed rhetorical forms, rhythms, and rhymes, De Maria Magdalena represents words of love as beautiful.

Like the drama of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, De Maria Magdalena is dramatic work that enriches understanding of the history of Christian drama. Unlike the quem quaeritis trope, Le Jeu d’Adam, and various mystery cycles, De Maria Magdalena isn’t an external representation of scripture. De Maria Magdalena reads scripture with human passions dramatically united to Christian understanding. De Maria Magdelana is within the tradition of Hrotsvit, but with scripture replacing hagiography and without Hrotsvit’s particular, transgressive concern for men. Understood primarily as a homily, De Maria Magdalena has been misunderstood.[8]

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Read more:


[1]  Over 130 Latin manuscripts of De Mari Magdelena have survived. Origen wrote in Greek. De Mari Magdelena was clearly composed in Latin. For this and other reasons, Origen surely didn’t write De Mari Magdelena. The work may have been attributed to Origen to give it ancient authority. That attribution could have resulted from “homily from an unknown author {omelia oriensis}” being scribally corrupted into “homily of Origen {omelia origenis}.” McCall (1971) pp. 492-5, esp. n. 11.

[2] Delasanta & Rousseau (1996) provides both a Latin text and an English translation using as base manuscript MS Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 137, folios 141v-143r, incipit “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb {Maria stabat ad monumentum foris plorans}.” All the quotes from De Mari Magdelena are from id., with some minor changes that I have made. The Latin text has been simplified to accept silently Delasanta & Rousseau’s emendations.

The English translation has been changed only slightly. For example, in the above quote, I have translated “ad monumentum foris” as “outside the grave-marker.” Id. has “outside the tomb.” My translation brings out more the text’s concern for signification. Id. variously translates “monumentum” as “tomb” and “sepulcher.”

[3] The ornate, poetic prose of De Maria Magdalena has similarities to popular medieval Arabic and Hebrew maqama in combining aspects of prose and poetry.

[4] Cf. Song of Solomon 5:6 (“I called to him and he did not answer me.”), Matthew 24:46 (“Why have you abandoned me?”).

From the late-twelfth-century Fleury Playbook (Orléans, Bibliothèque Municipale MS. 201), the play For representing the scene at the Lord’s sepulchre {Ad faciendam similitudinem dominici sepulcri} similarly includes emotive laments of Mary Magdalene:

Alas my sorrow, alas what dire anguish of sorrow,
that I am deprived of the presence of my beloved master!
Alas, who has taken the beloved body from the tomb?

{ Heu dolor, heu quam dira doloris angustia,
Quod dilecti sum orbata magistri praesentia!
Heu, quis corpus tam dilectum sustulit e tumulo? }

Ad faciendam similitudinem dominici sepulcri, vv. 38-40, Latin text and English translation from Bevington (1975) p. 41.

[5] Attention to specific scriptural details and narrative interpretation of those details characterizes rabbinical scriptural interpretation. Kugel (2007), a massive Whig history of biblical interpretation, provides extensive documentation of Jewish scriptural interpretation. De Mari Magdalena hints at close relations between monks and rabbis in twelfth-century France.

[6] Cf. John 18:15-7, 19:38, Luke 22:54-7.

[7] John 20:14-17.

[8] De Maria Magdalena ends with a shift from direct address to Jesus to moral application:

Let us therefore imitate, brothers, the affection of this woman. Let each of us cry to Jesus since he did not hide himself from the woman sinner who sought him. Learn this, sinner, from the woman who sins were all forgiven. Learn to weep because of the absence of God and to desire his presence. … I dare to promise you confidently that if in faith you stand at the tomb of your heart, if crying you search for Jesus, and in seeking persevere, if you bow in humility, if by the example of Mary you wish to receive no other consolation from Jesus except for him when he reveals himself, you will find him and then recognize him so that it is unnecessary to ask others where Jesus is, but rather you will proclaim him to others since “I have seen the Lord and he said unto me,” to whom there is honor and glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen. Thus ends the homily of Origen.

{ Sequamur ergo fratres huius mulieris affectum. Ploramus unusquisque ad ihesum quia non cela vit se peccatrici querenti. Disce peccator hoc a muliere peccatrice cui tarnen dimissa sunt sua peccata. Disce plorare dei absenciam at desiderare eius presenciam. … Audeo tibi confidenter promittere si in fide ad monumentum cordis tui steteris, si ihesum plorando quesieris et querendo perseveraris, si te cum humilitate inclinaveris, si exemplo marie nullam aliam consolacionem de ihesu nisi ipsum recipere volueris ipso revelante ipsum invenies et ipsum cognosces ita ut non sit necesse querere ab aliis ubi est
ihesus. Sed magis indicabis eum nuncians aliis quia vidi dominum et hec dixit michi, cui est honor et gloria cum patre et spiritu sancto in secula seculorum. Amen. Explicit omelia origenis. }

The awkwardly connected final doxology seems to have been appended to an earlier composition, as was the concluding specification “homily of Origen.” A prologue appears in some manuscripts:

As I prepare to address you, dearly beloved, on this present solemnity, I am put in mind of how, by loving our Lord above all else, the blessed Mary Magdalene…

Trans. Waddell (1989) p. 53. On the manuscripts, McCall (1971) pp. 492-3. This prologue seems to me to be of different style than the main text and a likely addition. Assimilating De Maria Magdalena to a homily seems to have begun early in its textual history. The work has attracted little recent attention, mainly by Chaucer scholars. Delasanta & Rousseau (1996) p. 319, Gross (2006).

[image] Mary Magdalene. Sculpture in wood attributed Gregor Erhart (d. 1525). Louvre, Paris. Thanks to Gautier Poupeau and flickr.


Bevington, David M. 1975. Medieval Drama. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Delasanta, Rodney K., and Constance M. Rousseau. 1996. “Chaucer’s ‘Orygenes upon the Maudeleyne’: A Translation.” The Chaucer Review. 30 (4): 319-342.

Gross, Karen Elizabeth. 2006. “Chaucer, Mary Magdalene, and the Consolation of Love.” Chaucer Review. 41 (1): 1-37.

Kugel, James L. 2007. How to read the Bible: a guide to Scripture, then and now. New York: Free Press.

McCall, John P. 1971. “Chaucer and the Pseudo Origen De Maria Magdalena: A Preliminary Study.” Speculum. 46 (3): 491-509.

Waddell, Chrysogonous. 1989. “Pseudo-Origen’s Homily on Mary Magdalene at the Tomb of Jesus.” Liturgy 23 (2): 45-65.

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