From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 48
Mary Magdalene
We arrived in Gioviano at nightfall on the 31st of May 2006. On the way up the hill to the parking lot, we had passed the new Al Cantuccio at Piano di Gioviano (Lower Gioviano), and near the top a religious service was being held at the little shrine that had been maintained by the Barsanti family since 1666.

During the night, my brain was composing chapters from the two books that I have been writing in my head and sometimes on paper for the last couple of years. My books were being intertwined concurrently as I slept: The Pope Must Die about the life of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and their descendants; and From My Tuscan Window. I was haunted by the thought that Mary Magdalene might possibly have traveled along the Roman road that passes along the Serchio on her way to or from her home in Provence. I was only aware of the story of her exile from Jerusalem and of her being cast adrift in a boat that miraculously landed safely near Marseilles. I am not aware of any travels beyond France in the years before her death, but her presence in the immediate vicinity of Gioviano has long been felt.

In the 12th Century, around the year 1101, the Countess Matilda built a bridge in Mary’s honor to cross the Serchio River, just two miles from Gioviano as the crow flies. It is known as the Ponte della Maddalena. In 1526, a chapel was built at the foot of the bridge and was graced with a fabulous life-size Della Robbia statue of the Magdalene. Unfortunately, in the early 1900’s the chapel was demolished to make way for a new railroad connecting Lucca with Aulla.

The statue was removed to the Church of San Iacopo in Borgo a Mozzano, of which Gioviano is a frazione (district), where Mary’s likeness remains to this day. It is very fortunate indeed that Mary Magdalene was not placed in the more important Chiesa di San Pietro (Church of Saint Peter) , because it was Peter who, I believe, wanted to kill Mary out of jealousy and who plotted the crucifixion of Jesus.

Borgo a Mozzano is located on one of the important routes of “The Pilgrim’s Way” from Rome to Santiago de Compostela. This route which passes just below Gioviano and is visible from my window, is an interior route of the Via Francigena. Sometimes, when peering out my window and attempting to imagine the amazing events that had transpired within the realm of my visage, I look down upon the small village of Calavorno with its tiny Romanesque church. Here, the clergy welcomed pilgrims who had vowed to make the arduous journey to Mary Magdalene’s tomb and onward to Santiago if they were physically able. There was also a pilgrim’s hospital associated with the Church at Calavorno, and after a couple of glasses of good Tuscan wine, I can sometimes see visions of frail, sick and hungry pilgrims making their way to the hospital, only to collapse and expire on the almost impossible journey.

Over the centuries, thousands of pilgrims have passed along this road on their way to venerate Mary Magdalene at her tomb in the Basilica of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in France. Her tomb was considered one of the most important in all of Christendom, along with Christ’s tomb in Jerusalem and the tomb of St. Peter in Rome.

In fact, just the day before our arrival in Gioviano, we had made the pilgrimage, as we had several times before, to the Basilica at Saint Maximin and to the mountain fastness of the Sainte-Baume cave where the Magdalene spent the last years of her life. I was expecting huge crowds at the Basilica where her skull is displayed above her sarcophagus in the crypt. The movie, The Da Vinci Code, had just opened in theaters worldwide, and there had been a tremendous interest in Mary Magdalene since Dan Brown had written his novel.

The weather was perfect, yet the Basilica was almost deserted. Anne and I descended the stairs into the crypt and were both moved by the eerie sight of the skull of Mary Magdalene seeming to stare directly into our eyes. Upon leaving, we passed a lone man kneeling before a statue of Mary on the landing halfway down the stairs to the crypt. Her skull had a magnetism about it, and rather than looking macabre, it exuded an almost hypnotic beauty.

I left Anne with Sue and returned to the crypt, having been drawn by some mysterious force to spend time alone with the Magdalene. As I stared at her skull, the image of the Ponte della Maddalena and Mary’s beautiful statue in the church nearby appeared in my thoughts, and it was then that I began to wonder if she had at one time had passed beneath my Tuscan window.

Updated December 22, 2009
Copyright 2005-2009 George H. Russell
Previous Chapter
Back to the Table of Contents
Next Chapter