CHURCH OF SAINT MARY MAGDALENE|
Russian Orthodox ("White Russians"*)
Located on the Mount of Olives
[#7 on the Mount of Olives map]
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Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned toward him and cried out in
Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said, "Do not hold on
to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my
brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to
my God and your God.'"
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the
Lord!" And she told them that he had said these things to her.
Built on the slopes of the Mount of Olives by Alexander III
of Russia, the Church of St. Mary Magdalene is probably the most
conspicuous house of worship in Jerusalem. It owes its prominence
to the presence of seven gilded, onion-shaped domes jutting out
from a monumental Muscovite-style body that stands proudly
against the sky.
While the church was dedicated to Alexander's mother Maria,
it was called the Church of St. Mary Magdalene after her name-
saint. One of the best-known women in the New Testament, it was
Mary Magdalene from whose body Jesus exorcised the seven demons
in Mark 16:9. Mary was present at the Crucifixion and was the
first person to see Jesus after the Resurrection.
From a distance what you see of St. Mary Magdalene are its
memorable bulb-like cupolas. But if you enter the closure in
which it is found and climb the steps to the church, you discover
that the building is as remarkable as its domes. Indeed, the
palatial exterior features a mind-boggling variety of styles and
decorations that is fascinating to behold. Although it appears
to be made of marble, the facade is actually a stunning, sculpted
Classic, with Roman-style arches, the first story of the
magnificent structure has solid, graceful lines. Above the main
entrance, located on the second level, is a gabled roof trimmed
with a pseudo-lace design. A circular blue mosaic depicting Mary
Magdalene piously robed in white is framed in gold within the
The third floor is embellished with an upside-down serrated
roof, scalloped windows, and pretty arches. At the top are the
striking bulbous domes, each crowned by a tall gilded Russian
Orthodox cross. The bell tower is ringed with squat squarish
pillars and shaped like a rook, and above the bells is a large
silver cone with several chapel-shaped windows. A dome with a
protruding cross caps the bell tower structure.
Over the iconastasis - the eastern orthodox partition which
separates the prayer hall from the sanctuary - is an enormous
canvas by Ivanov. It illustrates a popular legend in which Mary
travels to Rome to tell Emperor Tiberius of Jesus' unfair trial
and unjust sentence. It is said that Mary held an egg in her
hand, representing life. But it turned red when she handed it to
the emperor, thus becoming a living symbol of Jesus' blood and
the Resurrection. Quite possibly, the Christian custom of dying
eggs on Easter is related to Mary's presentation of a red egg
as a tribute to the emperor.
The church's iconastasis is a work of art. It consists of
beautifully carved white marble, and painted bronze screens
decorated with Vereshoguine's splendid illustrations. Six tiny
paintings on the door depict the four evangelists, the Virgin
Mary, and the angel Gabriel.
Shades of brown and a variety of patterns dominate the
walls, arches, and ceiling. In many other elaborate sanctuaries
sculpted animals and flowers are carved under the arches, but
here they are adorned with painted designs. Other highlights
include a large chandelier which utilizes small oil lamps for
light (electricity is not used in the sanctuary) and a very
special icon of Mary Magdalene that contains a relic from the
sainted woman's bones. The marble floor with its colored
geometric shapes resembles that of another Russian Orthodox
church, St. Alexander Nevsky (see page 50).
Inside a beautiful, hand-carved wooden frame is a unique
sixteenth-century icon of the Virgin Mary holding her infant
son. Believed to have miraculous powers of healing, the painting
stood in a Lebanese church for several hundred years. Although
this icon and a small part of the altar were saved from
destruction after the church burned to the ground, the icon,
buried beneath the rubble, had turned black. Miraculously, it
began to lighten during the journey to its new home in Jerusalem,
more than half a century ago.
The miraculous icon.
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One of Russia's most extraordinary saints lies in state
within the church. She was Russian Grand Duchess Elizabeth
Fyodorovna, wife of the Czar's brother Sergei and sister to the
Czar's wife Alexandra. During the lavish inauguration ceremony
in 1888, the 24-year-old Elizabeth told several onlookers that
she wanted to be buried within its walls. Her wish came true less
than 35 years later, when the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 shook
her homeland to the foundations and Elizabeth was put to death
by merciless Bolshevik rebels.
Elizabeth spent some of her youth in England with her
British relatives - including her grandmother Queen Victoria -
and learned that royalty has a duty to the populace. Upon her
marriage to the Grand Duke Sergei, she adopted the Russian
Orthodox religion and began devoting her time to the Church and
to other charitable pursuits.
One of her projects was the Jerusalem Church of St. Mary
Magdalene, initiated by her brother-in-law but very much her own
creation. It was Elizabeth who supervised the artwork,
emphasizing a style from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
She was also instrumental in bringing two of Russia's top artists
to Mary Magdalene: V.V. Vereshoguine, and Sergei Ivanov.
In 1905 a revolutionist threw a deadly bomb at Elizabeth's
husband Sergei as he descended from his carriage. When she
visited the terrorist in his cell to beg him to repent, he told
Elizabeth that he didn't regret his action for a moment. In fact,
he said, he would have assassinated the duke earlier if she
hadn't been constantly at his side!
Following her husband's murder, Elizabeth entered a convent
from which she continued to help the poor and the unfortunate.
Ten years later, during the revolution of 1917, the Czar was
deposed, he and his family were exiled, and they were all
sentenced to death...
(This chapter continues in "Beyond the Walls: Churches of
Return to "Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem"