Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Worshipping Corpus Christi: Mary Magdalene in the English Mystery Cycles

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Worshipping Corpus Christi: Mary Magdalene in the English Mystery Cycles

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The open-ended form of the Scripture and the multiplicity of apocryphal and folk traditions pertaining to the saint often make it difficult to differentiate Mary Magdalene from other Marys in the cycles. She can be identified as Mary of Bethany, the woman who washed Christ's feet, the repentant prostitute or, most importantly, the woman to whom the risen Christ appears. The aim of this article is to examine the presentation of the saint in the Resurrection pageants in the English mystery plays. Her spirituality which exceeds a purely human perspective focused on the "here and now" and her devotion, often expressed by the playwrights in terms of physicality, will be discussed. Dramatic implications of the apostles' rejection of the news of the Resurrection, announced by Mary Magdalene, will be investigated, and an interpretation of the silence of the saint, accused by them of idle "carping", will be offered. Finally, the divergent attitudes of Mary Magdalene and the disbelieving Thomas towards the risen Christ will be examined.

Mary Magdalene is one of those intriguing characters for whom it is almost impossible to differentiate fact from fiction. What is known about this saint, considered to be Jesus' most faithful disciple, is a conflation of scriptural narratives, apocryphal stories and folk beliefs. Biographical facts about Mary Magdalene, provided in the gospels of Mark, Luke and John, are in popular perception often intermingled with less indisputable details about her life, and historical data are intertwined with fictional elements.

As an example of penitence and deep faith, Mary Magdalene is also an important female character in the English cycle plays. She is referred to by the mystery playwrights as the woman from whom Jesus drove out evil spirits, the repentant prostitute, the woman taken in adultery, Lazarus' sister, and the woman who washed Christ's feet before the Last Supper. Magdalene also accompanies other women at the cross and, together with two other Marys, attends the Sepulchre to anoint Christ's body. Most importantly, however, she is the first person to whom the resurrected Christ appears.

The following paper focuses on the presentation of Mary Magdalene in the pageants dealing with the events following the Crucifixion: the saint's search for Christ's body, Jesus' appearance to her and the annunciation of the news of the Resurrection to the apostles. First, Mary's specific spirituality, rooted in her physicality and often experienced somatically, will be discussed and placed in the context of medieval staging and acting conventions. Secondly, the disciples' disbelief in the woman's words and the divergent attitudes of Mary Magdalene and the incredulous Thomas towards the risen Christ will be examined.

The biblical exemplars of Christ's appearance to Mary Magdalene are found in the gospels of John and Mark. John offers a relatively thorough account of the appearance of the angels to Mary and then of the meeting between Jesus and the woman. (1) Mark, on the other hand, makes only a brief mention to Christ's appearance and Mary's confrontation with the apostles. (2)

The N-Town plays offer the most extensive dramatisation of the event whilst the Chester cycle, somewhat consistently with its overall attitude towards women (Coletti 1990: 89), omits it altogether. Additionally, the cycles vary in the presentation of some minor elements, such as the number of angels that appear to Mary Magdalene or the details immediately preceding Jesus' appearance: whilst in the Scripture two angels await Mary at the tomb, in the N-Town plays there is only one angel; in the York and Towneley cycles Jesus greets her directly.

Mary's lamentation over the disappearance of Christ's body opens the pageant in the York plays and in the N-Town plays. Echoing the Blessed Virgin's words uttered during the Crucifixion, (3) Mary Magdalene complains of utmost sorrow that makes her heart break and takes her voice away. …

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