It was our first time exploring Oxford and my mom and I started our adventure at the Church of St Mary Magdalen which is just to the north of the former city wall.
St Mary Magdalen’s church is in what is today the centre of Oxford. It is just around the corner from where we were about to start our Oxford Red Bus tour and a great place to hide a bit from the cold. The church actually started out as a wooden church, dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen,. St. Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, rebuilt the church in 1194, during the reign of Richard ‘the Lion Heart’ who retained an interest in the church.
In 1841-42, the young, and as yet unknown, Gilbert Scott rebuilt the chancel and the north aisle to complement his work on the Martyrs’ Memorial, thus giving the church Oxford’s earliest Victorian Gothic interior. Compared to other Oxford churches, it is relatively high, with a strong emphasis on Anglo-Catholicism.
Thanks to the success of The Da Vinci Code, Mary Magdalen has become one of the most talked about people in Christian history. She is also one of the most remarkable, and what we know about her from the New Testament is as surprising as anything which has been speculated since.
The Da Vinci Code is, of course, a story, and not a history book. The feminine looking figure, in Leonardo’s painting of the Last Supper, which the book claims to be Mary is in fact St John, the beloved disciple, who is frequently presented with the youthful looks and flowing blond locks of a Renaissance man. There is no evidence whatsoever that Mary Magdalen had any relationship with Jesus beyond that of follower and friend, and unfortunately we know nothing of her tomb or mortal remains.
What we do know about Mary Magdalen is that first and foremost, she was a follower of Jesus. Crucially, we are told that she stood as a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus, and most important of all, that she was the first witness to the resurrection on the very first Easter morning.
A great deal of iconography featuring Mary Magdalen portrays her washing Jesus’ feet. She is also forever to be associated with spices for anointing, but this is not a problem since we are sure, from the gospel accounts, that she and her companions went to Jesus’ tomb early on the first day of the week to anoint his body.
What makes Mary Magdalen one of Christianity’s most venerated saints is her fidelity to Jesus Christ on the cross, and her being chosen to witness and spread the news of his resurrection.
Every year around 22nd July, the Feast of St Mary Magdalen, the church is decorated with spices in her honour. I think that must be a beautiful sight.