From Relic to Legend I: The Cult of Mary Magdalene and the Holy Tear
The Holy Tear originated in the Lazarus story, when Jesus raised him from the dead. In the development of the legend of the Holy Tear, however, Mary Magdalene proved an even more consequential figure. I argue in this chapter that the cult of Mary Magdalene and the network of legends that developed in France in the eleventh and twelfth centuries created a matrix out of which the first part of the legend of the Holy Tear was constructed.
Medieval theologians identified Mary Magdalene as Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus, and the woman who, at the house of Simon, washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair. Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus on Easter morning. Thus, Mary Magdalene was present for the most consequential events in the Gospels. Mary Magdalene’s presence at these events were also associated with tears. Mary wept at the feet of Jesus, and washed his feet with her tears. Her tears provoked Jesus to weep himself and call Lazarus out from the tomb. Finally, the tears of grief were turned to joy upon seeing the resurrected Christ, when he asked her: “Woman, why are you weeping?”
Her role in these Gospel narratives made Mary Magdalene one of the most significant saints in the Middle Ages, and these gospel stories formed the basis of the liturgies used in her cult. Her closeness to Jesus and his recognition of her compunction, manifested by her tears, led to her forgiveness of sin. Thus, the desire to see Mary Magdalene as both a role model and as a figure in the early Church led to the creation of new narratives. By the twelfth century, a narrative was in full bloom recounting how Mary Magdalene, along with her brother Lazarus, sister Martha, and Saint Maximin arrived in Southern France. Mary Magdalene and Maximus made their way to Aix, where they preached the Gospel and converted the population. Mary then retreated to a remote area around Aix, where she lived as a hermit. She was carried to heaven by angels on each of the canonical hours, which was the only spiritual sustenance she received, until on her final day, she received communion from St. Maximin.
Mary Magdalene was the focus of a significant cult at La Trinité in Vendôme since the early years of the abbey’s history. In fact, when La Trinité was founded in the middle of the eleventh century, the cult of Mary Magdalene had a strong presence throughout the Loire region. Moreover, Geoffrey of Vendôme, La Trinité’s most consequential abbot, composed hymns for Mary Magdalene and a sermon with a theme of Mary Magdalene transforming from a sinner to preacher.