Mary Magdalene as Mystic in Moderata Fonte’s La Resurrettione di Giesu Christo

Carlotta Moro is a PhD candidate in Italian at the University of St Andrews and the University of Edinburgh, funded by the AHRC, in conjunction with a St Leonard’s European Doctoral Award. Her thesis, which is provisionally titled ‘Gender and Faith in the Works of Moderata Fonte, Lucrezia Marinella and Arcangela Tarabotti,’ examines how early modern women writers appropriated sacred themes to articulate proto-feminist arguments.


The Venetian writer Moderata Fonte (1555-1592) is celebrated as the trailblazing proto-feminist author of Il Merito Delle Donne (The Worth of Women), completed in 1592 and published in 1600. This text revolutionised the androcentric dialogue genre by centring a group of female friends as they discuss the injustice of their treatment, bringing forth a vindication of their merits and a powerful argument for their liberation. Yet, Fonte’s pro-woman devotional poem La Resurrettione di Giesu Christo (The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, 1592) in ottava rima, which was most likely composed just before Il Merito Delle Donne, is not adequately recognised as a significant component of her proto-feminist project. Written in the wake of the Counter Reformation, when Catholic women were instructed to approach the Bible solely through the mediation of male spiritual guides, this versification of the New Testament recounts the events between Christ’s death and the Ascension. Revolving around the figures of the Virgin Mary and of Mary Magdalene, the gynocentric scriptural retelling frames the chief episode of Christian history in relation to the contributions of women. Interpreting the Bible in accordance with her pro-woman concerns, Fonte is implicitly levelling a critique against the evangelists and a broad section of the exegetical and Patristic tradition, who, by situating women at the periphery of the divine, have failed to acknowledge their crucial involvement in Christ’s legacy. The Resurrettione’s portrayal of Magdalene as a mystic reclaims the saint as an icon of female agency, epitomising the author’s resistance to misogynistic scriptural exegeses. In doing so, Fonte belongs to a transnational lineage of women – from Christine de Pizan to Teresa of Ávila – who turned to Magdalene for solace and inspiration.

Under the name of Mary Magdalene – the woman who is exorcised of Seven Demons (Mk 16:9; Luke 8:1–2) and witnesses the Resurrection – Fonte also conflates Mary from Bethany, who pours nard over Christ’s feet (Jn 12:1–8), and the unnamed sinner who anoints Jesus with tears and perfume (Lk 7:36-50). Fonte’s mistake is in keeping with an erroneous scriptural interpretation by Pope Gregory the Great, who originally combined the three women and determined that Magdalene’s sin was of a sexual nature, breathing life into the popular character of the repentant prostitute. The Magdalene who emerges from the Gospels is an unruly woman who deviates from the patriarchal restrictions placed on her sex: she enjoys special status among the disciples, she ministers to Christ, with whom she shares an intimate affinity, and she witnesses the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Starting with St. Gregory the Great, the “fallen woman’s” purported promiscuity has been weaponised to counter her subversive potential, serving as a tool of ‘propaganda against her own sex.’[1] By the time of Fonte’s writing, the misogynistic cultural narrative surrounding Magdalene had become almost inextricably attached to her figure. Depictions of Magdalene in early modern Italian culture originated primarily in the imagination of male artists and writers, and catered to their gaze and desires. In line with the fallen woman trope, they eclipsed her leadership as Apostola Apostolorum: more often than not, the saint was indelibly marked by her sexual history, and was required to assume a submissive stance within a male-dominated symbolic framework. For instance, wooden sculptures like the ‘Penitent Magdalene’ by Donatello (1455), casting her in the role of starving hermit, punished her “sexual transgression” by stressing her extreme repentance. A more sensual and voyeuristic iconography came to the fore with the Council of Trent, when the saint was frequently objectified with the erotic traits of the seductress (Titian’s Penitent Magdalene (1530s) is an example in the figurative arts) and was often represented as a femme fatale in Counter-Reformation literature.[2] According to Adriana Valerio, this stereotype has contributed to uphold a patriarchal ideology and society. For this reason, feminist theologians like Valerio maintain that recovering Magdalene’s historical memory is a necessary political operation with the potential of giving rise to a movement for gender equality within the Church.[3] Reading the Resurrettione it is plausible to deduce that Fonte would have espoused this logic: as she frees Magdalene from most misogynistic accretions, the Venetian author reclaims the saint for her discipleship, testimony, and mystical communion with the divine.

At the intersection of sacred and profane, piety and love lyric, Fonte crafts a hybrid female character that expresses her agency through the mystical experience. The nucleus of the narrative is John’s account of Christ’s apparition on Easter Sunday, when Jesus invites Magdalene to announce the Resurrection to his disciples. As she weeps beside Christ’s empty grave, and then as she beholds his miraculous arrival, the loving devotion experienced by Magdalene is so intense that it overflows into a state of transcendence, generating in her a mystical rapture. The lengthy description of this encounter echoes the passionate language, sentiments and imagery forged by mystics such as Angela of Foligno (1248-1309) and Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), evoking their experiences of sacred marriage between the soul and Christ the bridegroom. These holy women communicated their visions with sensually vivid terminology, depicting the fusion of the human soul with the divine as a merging that generates pleasure bordering on ecstasy, exceeding language and reason. Albeit for a brief moment, Magdalene’s beatific worship signals her transformation from desired to desiring, shifting the emphasis from her body to her soul, from her exteriority to her subjectivity, from her passivity to her agency.

With this affirmative depiction, Fonte refutes the authorities that denigrated Magdalene’s discipleship, giving her theological dignity and a priestly mandate. The poem does not merely advance a secular vindication concealed in sacred language, but instead presents an argument for women’s virtue and agency in accordance with the Bible, and with a distinctively female § experience. Characterised by the same metaphysical accents and lexical choices, Magdalene’s union with the divine appears to be inspired by a lineage of charismatic mystics who entered into direct dialogue with God, gaining authority in the process. Saintly, visionary women like Catherine of Siena might have provided formidable models of agency for proto-feminist writers like Fonte: their inner spiritual life, unmediated by clergymen, might have unlocked new avenues for creativity, reflection and self-expression. Therefore, Fonte’s allusions to this mystical female genealogy open up fascinating questions about the relationship between the phenomenon of female mysticism and early modern feminism.

[1] Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalene (London: Harper Collins, 1994), 97

[2] Salvatore Ussia, ‘Il tema letterario della Maddalena nell’età della Controriforma,’ Rivista di storia e letteratura religiosa 42 (1988), 411.

[3] Adriana Valerio, Maria Maddalena: Equivoci, storie, rappresentazioni (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2020), 10-11


Bibliography

Primary Texts

Fonte, Moderata. Il Merito Delle Donne: ove chiaramente si scuopre quanto siano elle degne e più perfette de gli uomini. Mirano: Editrice Edios, 1988.

Fonte, Moderata. La Resurrettione di Giesu Christo Nostro Signore, che segue alla Santissima Passione descritta in ottava rima. Venice: Giovanni Domenico Imberti, 1592.

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