Dervaig Mary (Magdalene)

By Donald C Black

If you visit the village of Dervaig in the North of Mull, which you might, on your way to the exquisite Calgary sands, you can’t miss the round, pencil-shaped tower of Kilmore Church, designed by Scottish architect Peter MacGregor Chalmers and finished in 1905. However, visible only looking out from inside the church is something much more startling than its unusual tower. 

One of its seven stained glass windows, created for it by leading Scottish stained glass artist Stephen Adam, shows the figure of Christ, portrayed in the traditional way singled out by a halo. Beside him walks a lovely young woman. She has no halo, but the two walk close together, holding hands. She inclines her head so that her hair touches Christ’s cheek as they emerge through an archway from a temple-like building. It is an intimate picture. She walks slightly in front as if being presented to waiting onlookers.  She looks pregnant. The identity of the woman is disclosed in the Biblical text incorporated in the window: “MARY HATH CHOSEN THAT GOOD PART WHICH SHALL NOT BE TAKEN AWAY FROM HER.”

Clearly from the Bible reference (Luke 10.42), this is Mary of Bethany, who so annoyingly sat enraptured at Jesus’ feet while her sister Martha made the tea. It’s startling enough to depict Jesus posing intimately with a possibly pregnant woman, but one might have let it pass, had he not added something else. Mary is shown with long golden hair and dressed in green and gold – colour code for Mary Magdalene. Has Stephen Adam got the two Marys confused? Possibly, but much more likely, he knew of 6th century Pope Gregory’s famous sermon, identifying Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene as being one and the same person. He had a strong case, as anyone will know if they try cross-referencing Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, Lazarus (not a name, but a description - ‘The Leper’), Simon the Leper, Simon the Pharisee, and the multiple accounts of a woman with a jar of ointment. 

Unsurprisingly a strong underground tradition emerged that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were actually man and wife. The subversive theory was not new when Stephen Adam was creating his windows. Christian leaders Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr in the 2nd Century are on record as denying that Christ was married, which simply goes to prove that the tradition was already strong then. Their denial was based on the fact that the Bible contains no reference to Jesus’ wife. However, that argument from silence is unconvincing because The Bible contains no reference to St. Peter’s wife, which he must have had since he had a mother-in-law or St. Paul’s wife, which he must have had because he was a Pharisee and marriage was mandatory for Pharisees.

The truth is that the early church fathers had much more compelling reasons to resist the idea of Jesus as husband. If Mary Magdalene were Jesus’ wife, she was closer to him than any of the disciples hence a threat to their authority and that of their ecclesiastical successors. If she were granted any church status, being a woman, she was a threat to exclusive male power.  On this delicate point, Jesus had already carelessly muddied the male waters by choosing Mary as his first human contact after his resurrection and despatching her to tell the others, thus casting her in the role of ‘Apostle to the Apostles’. Later, the feminist movement were to adopt Mary Magdalene as one their patrons. If Jesus had a wife, how could the Church be the ‘Bride of Christ’, and how could nuns be even figuratively married to Christ?

Even more confusing, if Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married (in the eyes of the church), they must have had sex – a very perplexing possibility for an ecclesiastical culture, which insisted on the celibacy of its clerical hierarchy and relied on sex as a source of guilt and hence church power. A wealthy church institution in an age of general poverty is hardly going to major on wealth as a source of guilt, especially when Jesus had so memorably said, “Blessed are the poor”.

Further, if Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, they could have had children and therefore have left a genealogical blood-line. What would be the theological and ecclesiastical status of their descendants, if they existed and where are they now? What kind of beings would they be?         

MUCH safer to make absolutely sure that the celibacy of Jesus was the only story in town.

It worked, but not well. There was already a sub-culture, which resonated with Mary Magdalene, represented in the carved ‘green men’ and ‘sheela-na-gigs’ found even in some churches - the ancient pre-Christian nature and fertility principles showing through. On the Ross of Mull, for example, a ‘sheela’ is carved above and slightly left of the door to the Columban Chapel at Kilvickeon near Bunessan, and another (improbably) in the Nunnery in Iona. 'Improbably' because a sheela is a female figure, naked and usually grotesquely exhibitionist. The exact role of the sheela on a church wall is not clear.  Some say it was a warning against lust which, to judge from Church History, also didn’t work well. Others believe it was a fertility symbol and yet others that it was a protection against evil, the latter on the grounds that demons could be repelled by the sight of what a woman had under her skirt. If one were tempted with the thought that it would be equally plausible that demons could be repelled by the sight of what a Scotsman had under his kilt, one would not be far off the mark because there is a male counterpart of the sheela, known as a ‘sean-na-gig’ common on the continent, although rarely found in Britain.

But is there any evidence that Stephen Adam intended to raise this old controversy in his window? The answer to that is a matter of interpretation. To portray Jesus and Mary as an intimate couple was surely no accident but it is far from the only controversial aspect of his window. Was he completely unaware that he had colour coded his Mary with the green and gold signifying Magdalene or the significance of the diagonal cross x as a Holy Grail symbol? The Holy Grail is the cup or chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Its outline can be deconstructed into two shapes: ^ denoting the male principle and v the female, which re-combine to form the grail-shaped x. According to Grail historians, this fertility association caused the early church fathers to abandon the diagonal cross in favour of the now familiar vertical form  +.  It surely would not have escaped his notice that St. Andrew’s cross on the Scottish Saltire is a Celtic diagonal cross, not a Roman vertical one.

So is it credible that by accident the traditional cross is conspicuous by its absence in the window and instead, the glass segments low down on each of the archway columns depart from their normal irregular pattern and resolve into a series of repeated grail shapes . Was it just artistic impression that prompted the sunrise over the male shape of the Kilmore-like tower at the top of the window sheltered by dove-like wings (Magdala means Village of the Doves) or the leaves creeping round each of the pillars? If Stephen Adam had no intention of making his window controversial, we have to believe that, in a village named “Dervaig” (Gaelic for “little grove”, an echo of the pre-Christian “sacred groves”), he accidentally incorporated so many controversial images.

However, one thing is sure. Either unwittingly or with delicious irony, a century before Dan Brown’s bestseller “The Da Vinci Code”, Stephen Adam has planted, in a stained glass window of the Presbyterian Kirk called “Kilmore” (Gaelic for “Mary’s Church”*), the tantalising idea that the “Mary” in question might not be the one everybody thought.

Gary Gianotti has been in touch with me to point out the spade symbols on the columns to the left and right of the couple's heads. I haven't yet been able to confirm the spade as a Magdalene symbol, however I have come across an intriguing 15th Century English Carved panel which shows Christ appearing to Mary after his resurrection. The Gospel of John says that, initially, Mary spoke to him "supposing him to be the gardener". The panel shows Christ holding a spade. ( Unfortunately this spade is upside down, but it does seem quite persuasive. I also found another kind of spade - the Ace of Spades, which does look like the ones in the Dervaig window  and some associate with Magdalene, possibly because of the Gardener association, although I can't confirm that from the research of others.
PS Gary Gianotti FSA Scot, from Connecticut, USA , has come across an 1863 Henry rifle engraved with a spade image, incorporating a clear emphasised 'M' (for 'Magdalene'?) pretty well exactly as on the Dervaig window (if you turn the image upside down). "Was the rifle engraved for a bloodline believer?" he asks. I wonder if there is a line to Stephen Adam's window too?

* I've seen it argued elsewhere that Kilmore means 'Big' church, not 'Mary's' Church - like Ben More ('Big' Ben). Possible, but Kilmore Church is the church for the combined Parish of 'Kilninian and Kilmore', clearly suggesting to me that the name is of two saints - Ninian and Mary. The Parish of 'Ninian' and 'Big' doesn't make any sense to me. Anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Image by Gary Gianotti FSA Scot