Each time that I go to the Vatican, or its official title, “la Citta’ del Vaticano,” some twenty-five minutes on foot from where I live, I pass by the large church of Saint John the Baptist of the Florentines, or in Italian, “San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini.” Officially designated with the title of a minor basilica, the church is located just off the busy “Lungotevere” street, and along the “Corso (Boulevard) Vittorio Emanuele,” near the Tiber River.
Groundbreaking for the church of San Giovanni took place in 1523, but the structure was only completed in 1734, built by and for the people from Florence (“Firenze,”), Italy, living in the city of Rome. San Giovanni is considered the national church of Florentines in the Eternal City. Florentines were numerous in Rome especially in the mid-fifteenth century, many among them bankers and artists, for which Florence is famous. The Florentines were concentrated at a bend of the Tiber River where San Giovanni dei Fiorentini church stands today.
Dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, the special patron saint and protector of the city of Florence, the present church replaced an older one at the same place, dedicated to Saint Panteleimon. Most of the construction of the “new church” was between 1583 and 1602, and the façade finally completed over one hundred years later, in 1734.
One of the most interesting aspects of the church of San Giovanni Battista is the relic of the left foot of Saint Mary Magdalene, enshrined there. Devotion to this early follower of Christ derives from her role in proclaiming to the Lord’s Apostles on Easter Sunday and after, that Christ had truly risen. “The Apostle to the Apostles,” as she is sometimes called, Mary Magdalene was present at Christ’s tomb and the first one to whom the Lord appeared after his resurrection and the earliest to preach the Good News of Christ’s rising from the dead. Jesus commissioned Mary Magdalene to tell his disciples that he was among them again, in his glorified state.
From ancient times, Mary Magdalene has had a place in Christian art, including her likeness portrayed in elaborate ancient tapestries, Byzantine icons, Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque paintings and statues, as well as modern artist depictions.
A tradition developed in the 13th century, maintaining that after the martyrdom of Saint James the Greater in Jerusalem, which occurred about the year 44 AD, many Christians were sent away from the Holy City, being placed in a boat without a sail or rudder. The group included, according to tradition, Mary Magdalene, Lazarus and his sister Martha of Bethany, and ultimately reached the southern shores of France. The Holy Land exiles began to announce the Gospel to people near and far. Mary Magdalene, instead, chose to dedicate herself to a life of prayer and spent thirty years as a hermitess in a cave, at what is now Plan-d’Aups-Sainte-Baume, Provence, France, where there has been for centuries a shrine dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene.
Another tradition maintains that Mary Magdalene died and was buried in Ephesus, near to the final home of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Eventually the mortal remains of Mary Magdalene were moved to Constantinople and then to Western Europe, including Rome. How, you may ask, did the foot of Saint Mary Magdalene finally arrive in the church of Saint John the Baptist of the Florentines in Rome?
The tradition of Ephesus being the burial place of Mary Magdalene gains some support by a reference of Saint Gregory of Tours, who lived from 538 to 594, stating that the body of Saint Mary Magdalene was venerated in the city of Ephesus. Around the year 900, the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI, called “the Philosopher,” gave orders for the body of Mary Magdalene to be moved from Ephesus to Constantinople, modern day Istanbul. Her relics were to be placed beside those of Saint Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, whose “Edict of Milan, in 313 legitimated the practice of Christianity and brought an end to the persecution of Christians. Along with Saints Helena and Mary Magdalene, wood from the Cross of Jesus and the body of the prophet Daniel were also being venerated at the same Constantinople shrine.
Here the plot thickens and gets more complicated. The 1204 Fourth Crusade led to the creation of the Latin Empire of Constantinople, under the leadership of French noblemen. The last ruler of this short-lived empire was named Baldwin II. Surrounded by enemies, Baldwin began to travel to Europe in 1238, to forge alliances with European rulers, in order to obtain help from foreign powers, including Louis IX of France, later named a saint. In exchange for financial and military support, Baldwin granted Louis of France the Crown of Thorns of Christ, which had previously been in Venice, under Baldwin’s authority. In France the Crown of Thorns became the centerpiece of devotion in what is called the “Sainte Chapelle” in Paris.
In addition to the Crown of Thorns, the body of Saint Mary Magdalene was also given to France in 1249, destined for the cave at Saint-Baume in Provence, a place of pilgrimage mentioned above. On its way to France, the body came through Rome and tradition holds that the left foot of Mary Magdalene was removed and left in Rome. Why the left foot? This derives from an ancient tradition that the first step used to enter the afterlife is taken by the left foot and the same foot is used when entering the Temple in Jerusalem.
From 1249, the foot of Saint Mary Magdalene was at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and venerated by pilgrims on their way to the tomb of Saint Peter. The relic of Mary Magdalene remained at Saint Peter’s until 1527, during the sack of Rome by the mutinous troops of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. At that time Pope Clement V moved the relic of Saint Mary Magdalene to keep it safe. Unbeknownst to the enemies, it remained under the care of the nearby church of Saints Celso and Giuliano in Rome until the 1980s, but it was not fully recognized as the precious relic that it was.
Only in the year 2000 was the foot of Saint Mary Magdalene identified once again and subsequently enshrined at the front of the church of Saint John the Baptist of the Florentines, to the left of the high altar. The chapel in the left transept of the church is dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene as well. The relic of the saint is kept in a reliquary created for the foot of Saint Mary Magdalene by the Florentine artist, Benvenuto Cellini, who lived from 1500 to 1571. He was a master goldsmith and sculptor, as well as soldier, musician and writer. His work can still be admired at the Mary Magdalene shrine in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini church on the way to the Vatican.
As the first person to enter the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning, the foot of Saint Mary Magdalene is a reminder of “taking the step” to meet the Risen Christ, something all of us are called to do. I am always “on foot” as I pass San Giovanni dei Fiorentini and regularly stop in the church to say a prayer for all those who are near and dear to me.
Saint Mary Magdalene, pray for us!