Saint Mary of Magdala, in debated multiplicity of biblical character, is honored in both East and West as first among the disciples of Jesus. Even the Saints share a variety of ideas on her life as “the woman who was a sinner”, sister of Martha and Lazarus of Bethany, footwasher at Simon’s house, etc. Regardless of the debate, one which continues to add interest to this very day, she remains a supreme model of conversion, servitude and faithfulness for us all.
We do know for certain our Lord cast seven demons out of her, after which she became a faithful and inseparable disciple. Mary Magdalene stood at the very Cross of Christ, witnessed the burial of Jesus, was the first to discover the empty tomb on Easter, and the first to see the risen Lord. (Mk 15:40, Mt 27:56, Jn 19:25, Jn 20:1-18).
St. Augustine, mirroring several before him, gave Mary Magdalene the title “Apostle to the Apostles” for her blessed place as steady and devoted servant, during, throughout and following the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
It is no surprise therefore that in Sacred Art, Sacred Architecture, and Sacred Music, we have been gifted with numerous treasures in her honor. Think of the many glorious churches dedicated to her, notably in Italy, Spain, France, and the Americas to name a few.
In Sacred Music, we find a wonderful musical depiction of her quintessential servitude on Earth, with “the other Mary” in Francisco Guerrero’s six-part Easter Motet Maria Magdalene et altera Maria, 1570.
With homophonic mastery, Guerrero was ahead of his time in the use of a through composed, non-repetitive, and highly emotional narrative. The motet has two main sections, a true feast for all the human senses.
In the first part, Guerrero transports us with the two Marys to the tomb of the buried Jesus Christ. The scene is vividly painted in sight, sound, touch, color, and most interesting, smell. The sweet embellishment of the words “emerunt aromata” (“they bought sweet spices”) depicts an importance of their loving and virtuous charism to adorn the Divine body. One also receives a colorful sense of time, foreshadowing the Resurrection with the rising of the first morning sun, ushering a new beginning in weekly and Eternal time. The entire first section one can easily hear and feel the simple rising sun, growing in musical and supernatural crescendo, granting light, peace, and newness of life to God’s faithful. The close of the first section completes our initial honor and praise of the Almighty with a well adorned Alleluia, ending in half cadence.
In opposition of the first section, the second begins with entrance of stacked voices in reverse order, this time low to high, creating a varied mysterioso. As we are now at the tomb itself, rather than an introductory surrounding, we are drawn into the incomparable suspense of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary seeking the Holy crucified Jesus. Guerrero draws out the text “viderunt iuvenem” adding to the exciting uncertainty and fear of the man in white.
As the stranger speaks (“qui dicit illis, Iesum…”), metrical and harmonic rhythm slow to a suspenseful new sound, again showing the Spanish composer’s mastery of simple, yet emotionally complex use of homophonic musical structure. A series of surprising key changes as well as a gorgeous 20-note flourish in the tenor, ushers in the climax, breaking the news of Jesus’ Resurrection and thus absence from the tomb (“crucifixus, surrexit…”).
May we honor St. Mary Magdalene and follow her example as devoted servant of our Lord, willing to accept present sorrow, face the Cross, and eternally proclaim utmost joy!
Text & Translation:
Maria Magdalene, et altera Maria
ut venientes ungerent Iesum.
Et valde mane una Sabbatorum,
veniunt ad monumentum,
orto iam sole, alleluia.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary bought spices, intending to go and anoint Jesus.
And very early on the first day of the week they came to the tomb just after sunrise, alleluia.
Et intro euntes in monumentum
viderunt iuvenem sedentem in dextris,
coopertum stola candida, et obstupuerunt.
Qui dixit illis: Iesum quem quaeritis
surrexit, non est hic,
ecce locus ubi posuerunt eum. Alleluia.
And as they entered the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right dressed in a white robe, and they were afraid.
He said to them: You seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified: he is risen, he is not here, see, this is the place where they laid him. Alleluia.