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.

JOHN 20:16-18

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 white sandstone.
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 gable.
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 Jerusalem")

Return to "Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem"