Gregorian chants reverberate across the vaulted ceiling and along a beaded procession of archways that lead to a single dais on the far side of Valencia’s Cathedral. Ladies in veils cross the doorway and genuflect in adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament. A small set of steps take them to an altar encased by a half dome immaculately adorned with sculptures and paintings of the apostles. Just off to the side is a nondescript chapel called- La Capilla del Santo Cáliz. Inside this Chapel, encased in glass, is a small cup. It is Valencia’s Holy Grail. It stands on an illuminated golden pedestal.

Light streams through a stained-glass window high above the chalice and its altar. The chamber is enrobed in the gentle hum of a distant choir of nuns. The cup has two large medieval golden handles. The base is inlaid with pearls, emeralds and rubies which were added later. The actual sacred-relic itself is merely the piece at the top. It is a cup hewn from agate and polished with myrrh. It is in fact a simple thing – the Cup of a Carpenter. The very one used ceremonially by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and as legend has it, the very cup used by Jesus Christ himself during the Last Supper.

The Gospel accounts of this Supper do not list Mary of Magdala among the people at the table. Leonardo’s fresco of the event is a Polaroid of the moment when Jesus disclosed his betrayal. The twelve are depicted in groups of three reacting to the news in horror, anger and shock. The apostle to Christ’s right arm however does not display any easily identifiable gender. The identity of this person has sparked debate. Late 15th-century Catholic Rome was not a period with great regard for competing religious beliefs. The Inquisition began in the late 12th century France. The Spanish Inquisition began in 1478, and 50 years after ‘The Last Supper’ was painted, Pope Paul II established the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Rome. The most famous victim of this office in 1633 was Galileo Galilei.

Leonardo was an inventor and experimenter in many areas of human activity and it would have been worse than foolhardy for him to risk offending both his employer and his Pope. Pope Francis has rehabilitated Mary Magdalene’s image by declaring a feast day in her honour. His 2016 decree places her on par with the liturgical celebrations of all of the apostles and establishes her equality. This was a point of no return for every woman in the world.

The elusive treatment of Mary in the scripture has served as a scrim onto which successions of fantasies have been projected. In every age she is refreshed- from seductress to sibyl to mystic to celibate nun to passive helpmeet to a MeToo icon. The story of the woman with the bad name, the loose hair, ‘many sins’ and a stricken conscience would, over time, become the dramatic high point of her story.

The scene would be explicitly attached to her, and rendered again and again over many years. An innocuous reference to her takes on a kind of radioactive energy as a weeping woman who arrived with an alabaster jar of ointment and waited behind the Nazarene at his feet. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them away with her hair and then she covered his feet with kisses and anointed them with the ointment.

Judas who betrayed Jesus with a Kiss objected but Jesus refused to condemn her, or even to deflect her gesture. Beyond the betrayal of Judas the disciples Peter and Andrew are disturbed—not by what Mary says, but by how she knows it and a jealous Peter complains to his brothers- ‘Did [Jesus] choose her over us?’ This draws a sharp rebuke from Levi, who says, ‘If he made her worthy who are you then for your part to reject her?’

During the Fire of Notre Dame on April 15, 2019 the Crown of Thorns was saved from the flames. This Crown helps all of humanity to notice the Magdalene narrative as part of a lengthier story that maps the male desire to dominate the female. The whole world witnessed the weeping of Christine Blasey Ford in an explosive sometimes surreal Senate hearing as Brett Kavanaugh crushed her. He was combative. He spoke over the voices of the Senators. In the end- he was confirmed. Every violent man is a Crown of Thorns upon the head of all women.

In Mary we come to ponder how power seeks sanctification, how tradition becomes authoritative, how revolutions are co-opted, how fallibility is reckoned with, and how sweet devotion can be made to serve violent domination. All of these questions have shaped the narrative that enfolds the woman who befriended Jesus.

The elaborate tapestry woven around her that she was a repentant prostitute—is almost certainly untrue. When we read about Mary what we get is memory shaped by shades of emphasis. At Golgotha what is vivid is that she refused to abandon Jesus and becomes The Apostle to the apostles. This—not repentance, not sexual renunciation—is her greatest claim. Unlike the weak men who scattered and ran away- the one who stayed once Kissed his feet.