I guess I can skip the SPOILER ALERT. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is built around the premise that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child. Brown didn’t invent that high concept, not even within the context of pop fiction. It was a meme of late 19th-century French literature and art. The most important visual expression of it might be the Auguste Rodin sculpture the Getty Museum recently bought, Christ and Mary Magdalene.
The apocryphal gospel of Philip reports that Jesus kissed Mary often on her (blank). The last word is missing.
So is any indication of which Mary Philip meant. The New Testament names five Marys, among them the mother of Jesus. The guess, among those who take this seriously, is that Philip meant Mary Magdalene. (Right, Georges de La Tour’s Magdalene with the Smoking Flame, c. 1640, at LACMA.)
Incidentally, the Bible doesn’t describe her as a prostitute. Mary Magdalene has long been confused with the unnamed adulteress in the “Let he who is without sin…” episode.
In an 1886 book French socialist Louis Martin proposed that Jesus became an atheist, married M.M., and moved to the South of France, where they had a son.
Two years later Symbolist poet Rodolphe Darzens’ L’Amante du Christ explored a similar theme in verse. Félicien Rops supplied a frontispiece showing an androgynous Christ bleeding over a nude and muscular Mary Magdalene. Rodin must have played off the edginess of such antecedents in creating his more nuanced and modern image.
Rodin’s first version, a plaster Christ and Mary Magdalene, was probably modeled in 1894 and is in the Musée Rodin, Paris. Not until the following decade was it executed in two marbles, commissioned by rival steel tycoons.
The first (1905) went to German steel man August Thyssen. Thyssen rated it his favorite work by Rodin and insisted that it be placed at the head of his coffin (below right). This marble is now in the collection of Thyssen’s daughter-in-law and is displayed at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
The other (1908) marble was carved for Austrian industrialist Karl Wittgenstein, father of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Wittgenstein marble, in a Dutch collection from 1964 to 2012, is the one now at the Getty.
It is a bit larger than Thyssen’s version. It also incorporates some changes. Rodin’s 1894 plaster (detail below) has an indisputable cross and open space between the figures. In the marbles, the bodies melt into each other and a mass of unfinished stone that is only vaguely cruciform. Judging from online photographs, the Getty marble is cut less less deeply on the left side than the Thyssen version is, making it less cross-like, more abstract.
Rodin gave the sculpture other titles: “The Genius and the Pity” and “Prometheus and an Oceanid.” Perhaps he worried that the Jesus and Magdalene story, so popular in the 1890s, had run its course. A great work of art need not be nailed down, but “nailed down” is a fair description of Rodin’s male figure. Nailheads are visible in the palms.
Rodin need not have worried. The Magdalene legend had legs. In the 20th century it was proposed that the Merovingian kings of France were descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. This gave several pretenders basis for claiming a European throne. The Belgian Michel Roger Lafosse thought his alleged Nazarene ancestry qualified him to be king of Scotland. Pierre Plantard, a former Nazi sympathizer, came forward in the 1960s as France’s long-lost and not particularly sought-for dauphin. Plantard cited not only his Jesus and Mary ancestry but the authority of Nostrodamus, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, and General de Gaulle in an all-encompassing conspiracy theory. Dan Brown was well aware of Plantard and drew on his claims in his novel.
The success of The Da Vinci Code inspired polemics, rip-offs, and debunkings in every medium. The Jesus bloodline idea must be more globally known today than it was in Rodin’s time. It got a bump in 2012 with the discovery of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. That is a 2nd-century scrap of papyrus with the words, “Jesus said to them, my wife…” Again we’re left hanging.
Royal claimants like Plantard presumed that a Jesus bloodline would be a rare distinction. Recently, computer analysis has shown that it would be all but impossible for a first-century A.D. couple to have a small group of 21st-century descendants. Genealogist Steve Olsen concluded, “If anyone living today is descended from Jesus, so are most of us on the planet.”
That’s a sobering thought, not just because of Ferguson and ISIS. What if God was all of us?