One of the treasures of Rome that I’ve featured in a “Joan’s Rome” video was a priceless relic of bones from the left foot of Mary Magdalene – Mary of Magdala! I had been to San Giovanni church near my home a number of times for Mass but had obviously never explored it well as I’d have never forgotten this relic had I known.
When I learned about it, I hurried to a 6 pm evening Mass and afterwards visited the shrine in which reposes this foot-shaped reliquary. I spoke to the priests and they gave me some literature and the story you read below is a synthesis of that brochure.
Today is the feast of this wonderful, and so often misunderstood or mis-identified woman, and I’d like to share some stories.
As soon as I find my photos, I’ll add them to the story. I’ve spent considerable time this afternoon searching my vast archives and had no luck but will pursue the matter! I know there are photos online but they are not mine! Facebook does not keep photos posted after a short time or I’d have re-posted the pictures from a blog I did.
WHAT A TREASURE: ROME’S RELIQUARY WITH FOOT OF MARY MAGDALENE
San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini – St. John the Baptist of the Florentines – is known as the regional church for expatriates from Florence whose patron saint is John the Baptist. There was a flourishing expat Florentine community in Rome in the mid-15th century that featured the bankers and artists for which the city was famous. That expat Florentine community was concentrated on a bend of the Tiber River where the church stands today.
San Giovanni was built for the first Medici Pope, Leo X, who started a competition for the church’s construction. Great numbers of famous artists participated in the project but the building was on-again off-again for a few centuries. Two of the most celebrated artists are buried here – Carlo Maderno and Francesco Borromini.
Only in recent years, however, has San Giovanni dei Fiorentini made a singular claim to fame: it possesses relics of the foot of St. Mary Magdalene that rest in a shrine to the left of the main sanctuary.
Historians seem to agree that Mary Magdalene died and was buried in Ephesus and that, given historical vicissitudes, her body – or parts of it, what we will call relics – was brought to Constantinople, then to the south of France and, finally Rome.
How the relics got to the south of France seems to be the biggest mystery – not all legends agree. One, in fact, says Mary Magdalene lived in a cave as a hermitess in the south of France where she died.
The historical account found in the Church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini says her body was sent by ship from Sainte Baume in Provence to Rome where her left foot was removed according to the Greek tradition that this is always the first foot that rises when you enter the after life. Her foot came to rest in St. Peter’s basilica with other passion relics.
For many years, pilgrims who came to Rome to visit the tomb of Peter would first stop to venerate the foot of St. Mary Magdalene who was the first person to enter the tomb of the Risen One. This foot was first kept in a precious reliquary of Benvenuto Cellini.
More historical vicissitudes and the foot finally came to rest in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini – but only in 1984! – where it was buried away in a closet with other forgotten relics and historical pieces.
Amazingly enough it was discovered only in the year 2000 when San Giovanni began work on its Museum of Sacred Art!
SAINT MARY MAGDALENE’S STORY
(Franciscan Media) – Except for the mother of Jesus, few women are more honored in the Bible than Mary Magdalene. Yet she could well be the patron of the slandered, since there has been a persistent legend in the Church that she is the unnamed sinful woman who anointed the feet of Jesus in Luke 7:36-50.
Most Scripture scholars today point out that there is no scriptural basis for confusing the two women. Mary Magdalene, that is, “of Magdala,” was the one from whom Christ cast out “seven demons” (Luke 8:2)—an indication at the worst, of extreme demonic possession or possibly, severe illness. (image Pauline.org)
Writing in the New Catholic Commentary, Father Wilfrid J. Harrington, O.P., says that “seven demons” “does not mean that Mary had lived an immoral life—a conclusion reached only by means of a mistaken identification with the anonymous woman of Luke 7:36.” In the Jerome Biblical Commentary, Father Edward Mally, SJ, agrees that she “is not…the same as the sinner of Luke 7:37, despite the later Western romantic tradition about her.”
Mary Magdalene was one of the many “who were assisting them [Jesus and the Twelve] out of their means.” She was one of those who stood by the cross of Jesus with his mother. And, of all the “official” witnesses who might have been chosen for the first awareness of the Resurrection, she was the one to whom that privilege was given. She is known as the “Apostle to the Apostles.”
Mary Magdalene has been a victim of mistaken identity for almost 20 centuries. Yet she would no doubt insist that it makes no difference. We are all sinners in need of the saving power of God, whether our sins have been lurid or not. More importantly, we are all “unofficial” witnesses of the Resurrection.