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Kristin Hayes ’08 writes about her exploration of media portrayals of Mary Magdalene

As a double major in art and religious studies, Kristin Hayes ’08 (Roseland, N.J.) has come up with some very probing questions about Mary Magdalene and her portrayal in modern forms of entertainment. Under the guidance of Eric Ziolkowski, Dana Professor and head of religious studies, she is currently devoting her honors thesis to formulating some answers to these questions. The following is a first-person account of her work so far.

After spending a wonderful and relaxing semester abroad in Rome, Italy, last spring, the reality of senior year blindsided me during our first week of classes. I am a double major in art history and religious studies and am currently writing an honors thesis in art history. If someone asked me as a senior in high school if I would be studying art history intensively in college my emphatic answer would have been, Yes! On the other hand, if someone at the same time looked into a crystal ball and told me I would also be a religious studies major currently writing a capstone project on the modern fascination with Mary Magdalene, I probably would have laughed.

I was lucky enough to attend an extremely challenging, very intimate, all-girls Catholic high school run by nuns. Classes in theology were mandatory and I never considered them the highlight of my day, neither did I appreciate as much as I do now the efficient microcosm the Filipino Sisters managed with all their hearts and souls for the girls that attended my high school. When I entered college, I developed a subconscious affinity for religious artwork, specifically when women were portrayed. I found myself time and again fascinated by religious women and how they were depicted. This inherently made me want to take classes in religious studies to find out more about these women and the context they were placed in.

Fast forward four years, and at this point of the semester I am more than halfway finished with my capstone project in religious studies entitled “Mary Magdalene: A False Prostitute.” With the nurturing guidance of Professor Ziolkowski, this project has grown out of my interest in the gospel written by Mary Magdalene and the four different accounts in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of Mary Magdalene’s presence and connections with Christ.

Why, I wondered were there so many discrepancies between what was actually written in these books and what we believe today about the woman who was such a devout follower and beloved friend of Jesus? Professor Ziolkowski recommended that I look to modern forms of entertainment that have misconstrued the reputation of Mary Magdalene to be either a kindly prostitute or the lover of Christ.

Presently, I am analyzing three different widely known sources of entertainment to uphold my belief that somewhere along the line (a line that stretches about 2,000 years) Mary Magdalene’s reputation was completely misconstrued. The three modern sources of entertainment I will be using are Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and the character of Sonya, Mary Magdalene in Nikos Kazantzakis’ book and the subsequent movie The Last Temptation of Christ, and finally the controversial claims made by Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code book and movie. Throughout the course of the paper, I hope to display the disjunction between what was actually written by and about Mary Magdalene in the gospels and the notions that we as consumers of entertainment today have about her role in the Bible.

Looking back now, I suppose it comes as no surprise that my high school experience with strong, intelligent, and religious women as role models sparked my interest in influential women in the Christian tradition, particularly a woman as fascinating and progressive as Mary Magdalene. I feel so grateful to now have the opportunity to spend a semester researching and writing about this mysterious lady of the gospels with the help of such a wonderful mentor as Professor Ziolkowski. This project on Mary Magdalene has given me a sense of pride and fulfillment through the discovery and analysis of stories from past and present that comprise a remarkable woman in religious history.

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