Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of July 14, 2003
In search of St. Mary Magdalen
Modelled after a Greco-Roman temple, the church offers concerts, theatre and recitals
St. Mary Magdalen -- Feast Day -- July 22
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Many visitors pass it by, admiring the classical, colonnaded fa‡ade of the impressive building on its broad pedestal, assuming it to be the home of some important government offices, not realizing that it is one of Paris' great churches.
For those curious enough to enter, the Church of La Madeleine proves to be a treasure house of 19th century French art, with subjects honouring traditional Christian themes but unusual in its dedication to Mary Magdalen. This unique, historical structure occupies the Place de la Madeleine, venue for regular outdoor markets, on the boundary between the city's Tulieres and Opera quarters. It's near famed Place de la Concorde, adjacent to the Madeleine metro station, and just blocks from Paris' major Gare Lazare railroad station.
Mary Magdalen is well known because of her prominence in the Scriptures as the archetypical reformed sinner, a devoted follower of Jesus. She was present at the Crucifixion, discovered the empty tomb at the Resurrection, and was the first to encounter the Risen Christ on the first Easter morning when he "appeared first to Mary of Magdala, from whom he had cast out seven devils" (Mark 16:9).
She is sometimes portrayed in art with "an alabaster jar of ointment" with which a woman anointed the feet of Jesus (Luke 7:38). The saint figures prominently, sculpted by Lemaire on the south pediment of the church where she is depicted asking forgiveness at the feet of Christ at the Last Judgment.
After the Resurrection, Mary disappears from the gospels.
This church has had a long and confused history. A predecessor, one of a series of sanctuaries first named to honour Mary Magdalen in 1492, was destroyed during the French Revolution in 1799.
The present church, begun in 1866, was once considered for a bank, the French Parliament, and as a temple to honour Napoleon's troups. In 1842 it was designated as historic and became government property. Modelled after a Greco-Roman temple, it is surrounded by a sculpted frieze supported by massive Corinthian columns. The Latin inscription beneath the south fa‡ade pediment dedicates it "To God the Almighty, under the invocation of saint Mary Magdalen."
Entering the church, some are overpowered by the sheer quantity of religious ornamentation. The large nave is lavishly decorated, from domed ceilings to floor with paintings, mosaics and statuary.
Among the wonders to be enjoyed is an enormous painting in the apse depicting the History of Christianity and sculpted scenes of the Wedding of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Baptism of Christ.
Surprisingly, many of the works of artists featured in the Louvre are to be admired at leisure and at no cost in La Madeleine.
It's said that a list of contributors to the church d‚cor from Triquetti to Ziegler is a who's-who of 18th century masters.
Behind the monumental main altar, focal point of the church is a massive reredos which portrays The Ecstasy of Saint Mary Magdalen.
In the folk traditions of France, it is said that after the Resurrection, the saint evangelized Provence with Martha and Lazarus before living a solitary life in the Maritime Alps. Shortly before her death, she was miraculously transported to another place, the event being the subject of this famous sculpture by Marochetti.
Today, the parish church is supported by an active, enthusiastic congregation. Three Masses are scheduled each weekday and six are celebrated on weekends. And in addition, the church has gained a reputation as a venue for regular classical music concerts, organ recitals, and theatre, so that La Madeleine fits well into both the religious and cultural environments of the City of Light.