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Searching for Truth in Bones: The Mysterious Relics of Mary Magdalene

Searching for Truth in Bones: The Mysterious Relics of Mary Magdalene


Mary Magdalene is one of the most fascinating people from the times of Jesus. Although every year there are more and more people who follow her as if she were a super-heroine, her story has been misunderstood for centuries. But modern discoveries about her are helping to put her back in the right place in history. Her relics are located in different parts of the world and are a link between this mysterious woman and her modern followers.

The role Mary Magdalene played in Jesus’ life is still uncertain, however, it seems that she was an important companion. We don't know too many things about her life, but even the bible confirms the strong bond between Mary and Jesus - much stronger than between his other students. It is well depicted in the scene when Mary Magdalene recognizes him after the resurrection, according to John (20:17): ''Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

‘Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena.’  (1835) By Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov.

Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena.’  (1835) By Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov. (Public Domain)

The gospel officially believed to be written by Mary Magdalene sheds light on her story, but due to the lack of other resources, the most important items related to her are relics hidden in the chambers of churches.

There are at least three stories which explain how she died. One of them suggests that she lived and died in the Holy Land, another says that after Jesus’ death she traveled to Ephesus with St John and Mary, Jesus’ mother. Possible relics of Mary Magdalene were also located in Ephesus and removed from there to Constantinople (now Istanbul.) The third says that Mary Magdalene escaped from the Holy Land to what is currently southern France, where she lived with her daughter until she died.

The Skull of Mary Magdalene

The most overwhelming of her relics is her skull, which can be found in the south of France, in the town of St. Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. Her cult in France is connected with the legend of the Holy Grail and a story about her escape from the Holy Land.

The topic of the skull of Mary Magdalene is very difficult to explain because the relic seems to be originally from France – at the least, it has been there since the beginning of the massive Gothic church’s construction in 1295. This was when the region was ruled by Charles II of Anjou, King of Naples, Count of Provence, and nephew of St. Louis (King of France).

According to the story from when the basilica was being built, Mary Magdalene was buried by her friend Maximin, who was the first bishop of Aix. Centuries later, the tomb was opened on December 10, 1279. The people who opened her grave found dust inside the coffin and a wooden tablet wrapped in wax with a description that said: “Here lies the body of Mary Magdalene.” During the opening of the tomb in 1279, witnesses of the exhumation noted a wonderful smell of perfume that wafted from the coffin.

Basilica of Mary Magdalene, begun 1295.

Basilica of Mary Magdalene, begun 1295. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Her jaw bone was exhumed earlier, before the Saracen invasion of 710, and sent to Rome. However, in 1279, Pope Boniface VIII decided to return the jaw bone to France, and on April 6, 1296, it was officially reconnected with the skull of Mary Magdalene.

During the French Revolution the skull was removed from the church, but later it was given to the archbishop and closed in a golden reliquary. It is appareled in a red wig. The case is carried by a representation of four golden angels (which were presumably added in 1860 because the Roman numerals “MDCCCLX” are on the back).

The Mary Magdalene skull relic.

The Mary Magdalene skull relic. (The Red Pill/GFDL)

The Hand of Jesus’ Wife?

The relic of Mary Magdalene’s hand is located in the Simonopetra Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece. It's the left hand of a Myrrh-bearing woman, and according to the tradition it belonged to Mary Magdalene. It is thought to be incorruptible and is believed to create many miracles. It is also said to have a pleasant aroma, exactly as in the case of the French relic.

There are plenty of stories related to miracles supposedly caused by the precious hand. For example, it is believed that it protects the people from farm damage and it is said that Mary repeatedly removed the worms which were eating the plants.

Furthermore, it is believed that when the great fire took place in 1945 in a forest near the monastery, Mary Magdalene helped to bring enough water to stop the fire and save the forest and the monastery. Similar to the French relic, the hand is enclosed in a decorated case and worshiped by thousands of pilgrims every year.

The Mary Magdalene hand relic.

The Mary Magdalene hand relic. (Mystagogy Resource Center)

Legends of a Forgotten Leader

Mary Magdalene had a huge impact on Christianity, and she was perhaps even Jesus’ life partner. Now she is something of an icon for feminine power from Biblical times. Her relics are an important destination of pilgrimages.

Now, it is nearly impossible to confirm the origins of the bones in the relics. The churches have not agreed to compare the relics and check if they belonged to the same person. No matter where she was buried or who the real owner of the bones said to be the relics of St Mary Magdalene was, they are still very important Christian artifacts.

‘The Penitent Mary Magdalene’ (1576-1578) By El Greco.

‘The Penitent Mary Magdalene’ (1576-1578) By El Greco. (Public Domain)

Top Image: Detail of ‘Penitent Magdalene.’ (1598-1602) by Domenico Tintoretto. Source: Public Domain

By Natalia Klimczak


The skull of Mary Magdalene, available at:

The Incorrupted Left Hand of Mary Magdalene, available at:

Relics of St Mary Magdalene, available at:

Skull of Mary Magdalene, available at:

The Relics of Saint Marie-Magdalene at La Sainte Baume

Diocese of Frejus-Toulon, Southern France, available at: 



I’m not surprised that the churches have agreed not to compare the bones to see if they are from the same person. I guess everyone is still embarrassed by the discovery that the two sections of jawbone supposedly belonging to John the Baptist came from two different people who lived more than a thousand years apart.

I am often puzzled when supposedly scientific publications treat the legends and myths of the bible as historical fact. These stories are no more factual than Washington and the cherry tree. Church "holy" relics have been proven time and again as frauds and its disingenuous to present them as real.

Steve Byrd's picture

All sorts of myths surround this woman.



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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