Thirteen days and a half she hung in the pit, singing hymns and blessing the names of Jesus and His mother: no other human being in all the dark history of Japan’s persecution of Christ’s Church ever withstood the torturers’ cruelties so long. Yet, in the end, it was not the cruelties of the Shōgun’s minions that ended her life; rather, it was the merciful Hand of God that gently took holy Magdalena home.
A young woman of extraordinary beauty and refinement, Magdalena so enthralled the diabolic Governor of Nagasaki, Takenaka Uneme, that he tried to dissuade her from seeking the arrest and martyrdom she so craved. She was worthy of marriage to a noble of the highest order, he insisted; nay, to the very Emperor himself. But Magdalena would have none of that. She boldly declared to Uneme’s face that her only spouse was Christ,1 and in so doing handed herself, life and limb, over to him: to Uneme, the infamous deviser of the cruellest torture ever known to humankind.
The life and glorious death of Santa Magdalena, or Saint Magdalene—or Marie-Madeleine, as French historian Léon Pagès called her—is a dazzling tale so replete with signs of supernatural power as to make modern atheists stop their ears and crimp shut their eyes, lest “they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted,” and Jesus should heal them.2
Magdalena was a prodigy who displayed a love of learning from childhood, reading “pious books in the two languages of Portuguese and Japanese” and consecrating her virginity to God in front of an image of Our Lady of the Rosary.3 The orphaned daughter of Catholic martyrs, she risked martyrdom herself by laboring as interpreter and catechist for the Augustinian friars Francisco de Jesús and Vicente de San Antonio as she “accompanied them in their vicissitudes in the mountains.”4 Father Francisco gave her the habit of an Augustinian Tertiary and she thereafter made her profession, though barely fifteen years of age.5 Léon Pagès tells us that she worked tirelessly for the conversion of pagans, and with great success.6
Such a devoted disciple was she that, when her spiritual fathers were arrested in November of 1629, Magdalena wanted to join them in their inevitable martyrdom (they would be tortured to death by “slow fire”) by turning herself in to the authorities. God let her know that He had different plans for her, though: she would find new pastors and continue her work among her people. She served two more Augustinian Friars, Melchor de San Agustín and Martín de San Nicolás, as their right hand until they too were captured by the Shogunal authorities. She had been with them barely three months; they would die by “slow fire” on 11 December 1632.
Execution by “slow fire” consisted in tying the Christian to a stake surrounded by firewood placed far enough away from him to produce an excruciatingly slow, agonizing death. To aggravate the torture, the executioners covered the firewood with a layer of leafy foliage, then a layer of straw mixed with green branches; they doused the whole with saltwater mixed with soil; this would produce a thick cloud of acrid smoke to sting the Christian’s eyes and nose and poison every breath he took.7 Death would finally come only after hours of choking, broiling torture. The point of all this was to procure public apostasy: to produce such torment in the Christian captive that he would publicly renounce his faith, thereby opening the flood gates to mass apostasy. Slow fire, however, wasn’t doing the job: something more gruelling was in order.
Enter Takenaka Uneme. In August of 1629 the Shōgun had installed him as Governor of Nagasaki with orders to expunge the Catholic Faith from that staunchly-Catholic town, the historical wellspring of Catholicism in Japan. Since slow fire was producing only blackened corpses and seemed even to be fanning the flames of that proscribed Faith, the diabolical Uneme devised what would prove to be the ultimate in torture: “the pit.” Thus:
This was their method of persuasion: they would coil their victim tightly in rope from the feet up to the chest, tie his hands behind his back, and then hang him upside-down from a gallows with his head and torso lowered into a hole, six feet deep, perhaps containing human waste or other filth and covered with a lid to trap the stench. The lid was made of two boards closed together; crescent cutouts in the center closed tight around the victim’s body, pinching his waist and cutting off his circulation. It felt like his head was going to explode; his mouth, nose and ears would soon start oozing blood. François Caron, the chief of the Dutch trading-post in Hirado, wrote, “This extremitie hath indeed … forced many to renounce their religion; and some of them who had hung two or three days assured me that the pains they endured were wholly unsufferable, no fire nor no torture equalling their languor and violence.”8
This is how Magdalena’s next two pastors would die. The first, Dominican Father Domingo de Erquicia, described Uneme as “man dressed as demon, or devil incarnate.”9 He succumbed on 14 August 1633. The second, Italian Dominican Father Giordano Ansaloni, would meet his death on 17 November 1634. By that time Magdalena had already left this wretched earth, for she had sought out martyrdom, marching into that incarnate devil’s very lair in her black monastic habit to declare her burning love for Christ and her contempt for any torture that hell and all its minions could throw her way.
Upon learning of Father Giordano’s arrest, she went straight to Nagasaki to present herself to the authorities and demand that she too—as a Christian, a disciple of Father Giordano’s, and a member of a religious order—be arrested. At first, taken by her beauty and her obvious refinement, Uneme tried to dissuade her, but seeing her unshakable faith, he ordered her put in jail. “She entered with great happiness, shedding tears of joy,” history tells us.10 To dampen her spirits, Uneme ordered her tortured; his torturers jammed sharpened strips of singed bamboo under her fingernails. Seeing blood pouring from her wounds, she reveled, “With what rubies have you adorned my hands!”11 The torturers ordered Magdalena to scratch furrows in the earth with the bamboo strips; she obeyed, undaunted.12 They tried a water torture, pouring copious amounts down her throat and then throwing her onto the floor and loading heavy stones onto her so that the water gushed out violently through her mouth, ears, and nose.13 Though they repeated this torture time and again, giving her no rest, beautiful Magdalena was unmoved. They hung her by her arms on ropes, raised her high, and dropped her, dislocating her shoulders,14 to no avail: still she clung to Christ.
Giving up, Uneme condemned Magdalena to the pit along with ten other Christians. First he had them paraded around the streets of Nagasaki with Magdalena at their head on horseback, a rope strung tight around her throat like a garotte and tied to her wrists, bound fast behind her. A sign on her back proclaimed her sentence: condemned to death for refusing to abandon the Law of the Christians. 15 Her eyes showed no terror, nor the slightest hint of disquiet; indeed, they glowed with joy as she preached to onlookers all along the lengthy way. Finally her horse was led up the steep slope called Nishi-zaka to the execution-ground above, overlooking Nagasaki Bay. There the executioners cocooned her in rope, slung her by her heels from a gallows, and hung her, head downwards, into the pit of horrors—a six-foot-deep hole whose bottom, filled with the vilest filth the torturers could gather, reeked abominably—and clamped the lid around her waist, cutting off all light, fresh air, and even her own circulation. Perhaps, as usually happened, blood began to drip from her ears and mouth and nose; perhaps her agonies were ‘wholly unsufferable, no fire nor no torture equalling their languor and violence’; but Magdalena uttered not one groan or plaint or squeal: instead, she happily sang sweet songs in Japanese to Jesus, her Spouse in Heaven.16
This went on for nearly fourteen days. The guards would hear her ask, “Would you like to hear a song?” in the cheeriest of tones, and on their answering ‘Yes,’ Magdalena would immediately break into song, singing “a thousand canticles of praise to God our Lord in the Japanese tongue.”17 Accounts abound of miracles performed by—or through—Magdalena during that fortnight, but it was miracle enough that she had remained alive without a sip of water or a bite of food through that overlong ordeal, incredible enough to bring the torturers’ overlords up to Nishi-zaka to see for themselves just what was going on. They had no doubt that the guards had been suborned, that some Christian misfits were slipping her food and drink and bribing the guards to let them in. This the guards denied, and Magdalena backed up their words when they opened the lid to have a look at her for themselves. “Don’t be surprised if I don’t die in this ordeal,” she told the incredulous officials. “The Lord whom I adore preserves me and holds me up. I feel a paternal hand touching my face, and my body is lightened so that I don’t suffer.”18
That was enough for Uneme’s minions: they told the guards to club her unconscious, orders they must have obeyed with bitter reluctance, having been soothed for nearly fourteen days on end by Magdalena’s sweet, angelic songs—songs “in praise of her Husband [sung] with singular melody and sweetness, so much so that they said it couldn’t be a human voice.”19
Their dirty work done, those men must have closed the lid on Magdalena’s pit with leaden stomachs and searched their souls for some relief, something like that soothing Hand that had caressed that lovely maiden’s face throughout her impossibly-long ordeal. Perhaps they felt a hint of that relief when Heaven opened her floodgates that evening, drenching them as they stood at their posts atop Nishi-zaka, looking down on holy Nagasaki, home of so many martyrs, and trying to make sense of the horrors they had to stand watch over. Then, come morning, there was perfect silence: no heavenly joy, no sweet, angelic songs, for they saw Magdalena’s hole filled to the brim with Heaven’s cleansing rain, and pulling her out, they found that she had drowned: her Lord and Husband had finally, and ever so gently, taken her home.
Pretty Magdalena, holy Magdalena: the perfect bride for Heaven’s earthborn King.
Copyright © 2015 by Luke O’Hara
1 Léon Pagès, Histoire De La Religion Chrétienne Au Japon Depuis 1598 Jusqu’à 1651: Pte. Texte (Paris: Charles Douniol, 1869) 805-806.
3 Pagès, Histoire De La Religion Chrétienne Au Japon, 805.
4 P. Ángel Peña, O.A.R., Santa Magdalena de Nagasaki (Lima: Agostinos Recoletos, Provincia del Perú, no date.) 30.
5 Pagès, 805.
7 Peña, Santa Magdalena de Nagasaki, 39.
9 Peña, Santa Magdalena de Nagasaki, 18.
10 Ibid, 59, quoting Luis de Jesús, Historia de los Agustinos Descalzos (1621-1650), Vol. II. Madrid: 1681.
11 Pagès, 806.
12 Peña, 50, quoting the Relación of Padre Francisco de Paula, 1636.
13 Ibid, 51.
14 Pagès, 806.
15 Peña, 56.
16 Peña, 51.
17 Testimony of Úrsula Torres, Japanese and native of Nagasaki, relating what the guards themselves had told her; recorded at the Proceso de Macao, 1 Feb. to 2 March 1638. Peña, p. 71.
18 Pagès, 806. Another rendering of her words can be found in Peña, 51: “No os canséis que no he de morir de este tormento, porque el Señor, a quien adoro, me sustenta y siento una mano suave que arrimada al rostro me está aliviando el cuerpo.”
19 Peña, 57.