Church of Mary Magdalene

About this place

Church of Mary Magdalene

The Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene stands on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Its golden domes among the greenery of the mount are a beautiful and slightly incongruous sight. You can see the domes from across the Kidron Valley as you approach the Old City. In 1886 Tsar Alexander III and his brothers commissioned the construction of the church in memory of their mother Empress Maria Alexandrovna of Russia. The church was named after the Empress's patron saint, Mary Magdalene, and consecrated in 1888 in the presence of the Tsar's brother Grand-Duke Sergei Alexandrovich and his wife Grand-Duchess Elizabeth (now buried in the church). 

Design of the Church of Mary Magdalene

The church was designed by Russian architect David Grimm and has the traditional Russian tented-roof associated with 16th-17th century Russian churches. It has seven gilded onion domes with multiple levels and turrets in white sandstone. From a distance the magical church is magnificent but it is also worth getting a closer look. The church is surrounded by a tranquil garden. Inside there are many Orthodox icons and liturgical paintings. The Grand Duchess commissioned Russian artist Sergei Ivanov to create a series of paintings depicting the life of Saint Mary Magdalene. The iconostasis is of marble and bronze with icons by Russian artist Vereshchagin. To one side stands the 16th century miracle-working, icon of the Virgin Mary, "Hodigitria", which is said to have withstood fire and cured people of cholera.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia 

The remains of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia (1864-1918) are buried in the church. Originally from Germany, she married the Tsar's brother, Grand Duke Sergei. Following her husband's assassination in 1905 she became a nun founding the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent, to help the less fortunate of Moscow. During the Russian Revolution she was arrested and executed by the Bolsheviks. Her remains were found by White Russians and removed to the Russian Orthodox Mission in Beijing. In 1920 her remains were quietly transferred to the Mary Magdalene Church in Jerusalem along with those of Nun Barbara, her former maid. They were both made Russian Orthodox saints in 1981.

Princess Alice of Greece

Also buried here is Princess Alice of Greece (1885-1969), mother of Prince Philip, husband to British Queen Elizabeth II. In Princess Alice's later years the eccentric royal became a nun and devoted her life to charity work in Greece where she hid Jewish refugees during WWII. Her dying wish was to be buried in the Church of Mary Magdalene near the grave of her aunt the Grand Duchess Elizabeth. Ironically Princess Alice had protected Jews and been recognized as a Righteous Gentile while the Grand Duchess Elizabeth's husband, Sergei was known to have had over 25,000 Jews expelled from Moscow during his time as governor of the city in 1891. 

Who Was Mary Magdalene?

The Russian church is named after Biblical character Mary Magdalene, a faithful follower of Jesus. Mary is believed to have been Christ's closest female follower and some even consider her a female disciple. The Gospel of Mark tells us how Mary was the first to see Christ after his resurrection. She may have been one and the same with Mary of Bethany and she is named in the Gospel as one of the few people present at the crucifixion.

Convent of St. Mary Magdalene

The religious sisterhood of St. Mary Magdalene was established in 1936 by Mary Robinson (Mother Mary), a British convert to Orthodox Christianity. The sisterhood has convents across the globe including in Israel. The sisters are known for their artistic skills and visitors to the convent can buy hand-painted Russian eggs, painted icons, embroidered vestments, hand-made incense and other artistic creations. They are also known for their liturgical singing. The nuns pray and hold daily services in the Church of Mary Magdalene.

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