Mary Magdalene was the medieval world’s most emblematic saint. However it wasn’t until the sixth century that the saint assumed a specific identity and subsequently an important role in Christian theology.
It was Pope Gregory the Great who consolidated under a single identity three seperate women of the Gospel texts. Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus he identified as the same woman named Mary Magdalene discoverer of the empty tomb after the Crucifixion and first witness to the Resurrection.
Unifying these with the nameless woman condemned as a sinner by Simon the pharisee and redeemed by the act of washing the feet of Christ with her tears, an immensely potent figure was created.
“Noli me tangere – do not touch me for I am not yet ascended to my father”, these were the celebrated words ascribed to Jesus when Mary Magdalene came upon him after finding his tomb empty.
Mary Magdalene was both the archetypal sinner redeemed and through her devotion a symbol for nothing less than the Christian Church. She was known as the Apostle to the Apostles.
In the eleventh century the Benedictine abbey of Vézelay in Burgundy declared possession of her relics. This was a contentious claim since the legend of Mary Magdalene told of her journey after the Pentecost from Palestine to Provence, where she had ended her days as a hermit. In order to justify the presence of her relics at Vézelay the legend was embellished further by the involvement of one of the heroes of the epic Chansons de Geste, Girart Comte de Roussillon.
Girart had founded the abbey at Vézelay in the ninth century. The new account told of how he had brought with him Mary Magdalene’s mortal remains in order to preserve them from the hands of the Saracens who were then ravaging Provence..
The abbey’s claim to possess the relics was endorsed by papal confirmation in 1058. The massive size of the church at Vézelay is an indication of the large numbers of pilgrims who came to Vézelay in hope of miraculous cures and the remission of their sins.