The men of the church who benefited from the recasting, forever spared the presence of females in their sanctuaries, would not know that this was what had happened. Having created a myth, they would not remember that it was mythical. Their Mary Magdalene—no fiction, no composite, no betrayal of a once venerated woman—became the only Mary Magdalene that had ever existed.
This obliteration of the textual distinctions served to evoke an ideal of virtue that drew its heat from being a celibate’s vision, conjured for celibates. Gregory the Great’s overly particular interest in the fallen woman’s past—what that oil had been used for, how that hair had been displayed, that mouth—brought into the center of church piety a vaguely prurient energy that would thrive under the licensing sponsorship of one of the church’s most revered reforming popes. Eventually, Magdalene, as a denuded object of Renaissance and Baroque painterly preoccupation, became a figure of nothing less than holy pornography, guaranteeing the ever-lustful harlot—if lustful now for the ecstasy of holiness—a permanent place in the Catholic imagination.
Thus Mary of Magdala, who began as a powerful woman at Jesus’ side, “became,” in Haskins’ summary, “the redeemed whore and Christianity’s model of repentance, a manageable, controllable figure, and effective weapon and instrument of propaganda against her own sex.” There were reasons of narrative form for which this happened. There was a harnessing of sexual restlessness to this image. There was the humane appeal of a story that emphasized the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. But what most drove the anti-sexual sexualizing of Mary Magdalene was the male need to dominate women. In the Catholic Church, as elsewhere, that need is still being met.