On Šaxova’s Mary Magdalene: A Feminist Reconstruction of an Early Christian Myth and a Nineteenth-Century Poem

Kathleen Dillon, University of California, Davis

As one segment of a broad study in progress of the life and work of Elizaveta Šaxova, a nun and poet from late nineteenth-century Russia (1822-99), this paper offers a close reading of her 1848 poem Sv. Marija Magdalina. Mary Magdalene is a female icon of the Christian tradition who has been subject over time to extensive scrutiny on the part of theologians, and in the last ten years particularly by feminist scholars. Compelling research by Jane Schaberg (2002) has produced a feminist reconstruction of the historical Mary Magdalene as testimony of “women’s agency and power.” She emphasizes that Mary’s “apocalypse or revelation of the resurrection and vindication of Jesus is embedded in the reality of struggles against domination.”

Šaxova’s Magdalene poem, interpreted in the light of discoveries by Schaberg among others, supports my hypothesis that the veil was for Šaxova, as well as other nun-writers, a mantle of authority. The traditional role of the Christian woman intersects with the moral empowerment obtained, even if unintentionally, through the status of the convent. Unlike the lay orthodox woman, the nun assumed a version of the authority that accrued to male religious figures, though a paler one. Šaxova’s status as an acclaimed poet prior to her convent exile, provided her with a different sense of self and entitlement to the power of the word. Her poems, as this paper will attempt to certify, are the outcome of a claim to privilege, akin to the power of a pulpit.

Stephanie Sandler (2001) asserts that “Women’s poetry can have a more embattled sense of self than the poetry of men.” I will demonstrate in this paper that in the case of nun-poets such as Mat’ Marija Šaxova however, the self is liberated through its attention to and understanding of the divine and the role of woman. Šaxova’s Magdalene poem is at once benign in its traditionalism and provocative in its modernism. Both in its architecture and its rhetoric, the poem questions commonly held assumptions/mythology regarding Mary Magdalene.