In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great brought Mary firmly back into the picture—not the way she was but as the church wanted her to be. With breathtaking oversimplification, Gregory conflated Mary Magdalene of the seven demons with the unnamed "sinner" who washed Jesus's feet with her hair in Luke (a close reading of Luke 7 and 8 shows that they are not the same woman) and also Mary of Bethany, who anoints Jesus with nard in John.
Gregory reasoned that if a woman like Mary, who had fallen so low, could be forgiven through faith and the church, her carnality transformed into spirituality, the worst sinners could hope for salvation. Mary Magdalene wiped away Eve's original sin. "In paradise, a woman was the cause of death for a man; coming from the sepulcher, a woman proclaimed life to men," Gregory declared in his famous sermon in 591. The Eastern Orthodox Church, however, never accepted Gregory's melding of the three women.
In short order, Mary Magdalene soon became identified with the adulterous woman Jesus saved from stoning in John and with another woman who is not even mentioned in the New Testament—Mary of Egypt, a fourth-century prostitute who converted to Christianity and lived in a cave for the rest of her life.
Historian Jane Schaberg coined the term "harlotization" to describe Mary's negative makeover, a process that disempowered a powerful leader of the faith.
Tales about the hermit Mary clawing her breasts and tearing out her hair in penance for her sins abounded, inspiring the creation of orders of flagellant monks. Churches claiming bodily relics proliferated, with nearly 200 boasting a piece of the saint by the end of the 13th century. At Saint-Maximin in southern France, Dominican friars still display her skull with a miraculously preserved scrap of skin where Jesus touched her forehead after the Resurrection.
Painters like the 13th-century Italian Master of the Magdalene, Hans Holbein, and William Blake focused on her role in the Resurrection, while artists like Titian portrayed the saint in ecstasy, barely covering her naked body with long reddish-blond hair.
Victorian photographers posed seminude adolescent girls, many living in charity schools named after her, as "Magdalenes," a prurient mixed message perpetuating the saint's image as the vixenish Lady Godiva of Christianity.
Finally, in 1969, 1,378 years after Gregory fused three New Testament women into Mary Magdalene—and more than 450 years since religious scholars rejected this fusion confusion—the church officially corrected the mistake. Even so, the legend of the repentant prostitute still exercises a tenacious hold on the public imagination. Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese in 1988's Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ in 2004 keep the fiction alive.