During this school and college half-term holiday we’ve had the TDays grandchildren and their mum staying with us. Yesterday, their last full day in Cornwall, we took them to one of their (and our) favourite places: St Michael’s Mount.
St Michael’s Mount seen from the beach at Marazion
The main buildings
Even on a cloudy day it looks fantastic – from any angle or distance.
Millennia ago it was probably inland, in a forest, but inundation turned it into an island. It’s accessible today by a causeway when the tide is low, otherwise – as we did, you have to catch a boat (but we were able to walk back).
There was probably a monastic settlement there from the 8C. Edward the Confessor gave it to the Benedictine order of Mont St Michel – which it resembles physically, though the Penzance Bay version is smaller. It was a priory of that Normandy abbey until the early 15C, when, because of Henry V’s war with France, it was deemed an ‘alien house’ and was presented to the Abbess and Convent of Syon in Isleworth, Middlesex (there’s a seal of that convent among the many exhibits in the present exhibition rooms).
The site’s turbulent and often violent history is reflected in the prominence of cannon all round the battlements near the top
When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries St Michael’s Mount reverted to the crown. It was sold to the St Aubyn family in 1659, and their descendants still live there, although the National Trust, a British heritage charity, took over the administration of the site in 1954. The English novelist Edward of that name is a member of the family.
The archangel Michael is particularly associated with religious buildings sited on mountains and high places like this. Legend has it that he could be seen by fishermen, seated on his granite throne atop the Mount, from early times. Milton’s poem ‘Lycidas’ has its conclusion there.
There’s another tradition that links Jack the Giant Killer with the giant who was said to have resided on the Mount in early times.
View back at the Mount as we walked towards Marazion and the mainland after our visit
When Penzance harbour was developed and improved in the early 1800s, and the railway line was extended there in 1852, the thriving community on the island declined, its three pubs and schools eventually closed, and the population dwindled. It still has a fine harbour of its own.
The roundel of Mary of Egypt’s assumption
I was particularly excited by the discovery, as we toured the rooms full of fascinating exhibits of the building’s history and heritage, of a stained glass window panel that I’d not noticed on previous visits (unlike me). It depicted a female saint’s assumption to heaven, lifted there by angels.
As some readers of this blog may know, I’m a medieval hagiographer – my postgrad research involved a study of the Life of St Mary of Egypt. I decided that this glass image was not of her, but depicted the more famous Mary Magdalene, whose medieval European legend, as I’ve written in previous posts, took on many of the narrative contents of Egyptian Mary’s, including the long sojourn as a hermit in the desert, discovery by a wandering monk, and assumption to heaven when she died. The clothes of both saints were said to have rotted away over the years, so medieval artists usually depict them as young and attractive, their nakedness hidden by long wavy hair.
Assumption of the Magdalene by Silvestro dei Gherarducci (1339-99) (National Gallery of Ireland, NGI.841) Wikimedia Commons
As I said, I was pretty sure this image was of the Magdalene, but one of the volunteer NT helpers in the room joined me as I took its picture and said it WAS Mary of Egypt – he’d seen it in the official guidebook to the site. He found us later and had kindly photocopied the relevant page. It reads:
The stained and painted glass in the north windows of the Chevy Chase Room…were brought to St Michael’s Mount by Sir John St Aubyn, the 5th Baronet, at the end of the 18th century.
The roundels, rectangular panels and fragments date from the 15th to 18th century. They are mostly Flemish or Dutch and were probably originally in small oratories in private houses. They were inspected and classified by Dr H Wayment of Cambridge University in 1978. …The central roundel is the Apotheosis of St Mary of Egypt being carried to heaven from the desert, French or Flemish, c. 1520.
Dr Hilary Wayment (1912-2005) was an academic who was a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge (later of Wolfson), and is best known for his scholarly work on the 16C windows of that college’s chapel. I wouldn’t assume to question his authority in identifying this particular roundel with Egyptian Mary. I had previously been aware of only a handful of other images in religious buildings in England (there are many more in MSS). Hence my excitement at this discovery.
Another image of the Magdalene’s assumption, from a 16C window: image via Wikimedia Commons, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Why did I presume this was the Magdalene? Because she is usually distinguished in medieval iconography from her namesake by her attribute of an ornate ointment jar (the one she used in the New Testament story abouth anointing the feet of Jesus with costly unguents, thus shocking his disciples. He didn’t share their outrage).
Mary of Egypt’s attribute is the three round loaves her legend relates she bought as she left Jerusalem and entered the desert beyond Jordan.
Accurate identification of the saint in these assumption scenes is problematic, because the figure would not take her jar or loaves to heaven with her, so it’s only possible to be sure who the figure represents if we have other information about her identity. I can only assume the learned doctor had such information; it would be more usual to assume that an otherwise unidentified image of this type would be of the far more frequently represented Magdalene. Perhaps he had access to documentation of the provenance of the roundel.
Sforza Book of Hours, 1490. Assumption of Mary Magdalene, supported by angels; I couldn’t find an image of a similar scene with Mary of Egypt in Fitzwilliam MS 19, a Book of Hours from Chartres
I’ll be happy to take it as my saint’s image.
This last one came from my post on Mary of Egypt’s day in April earlier this year.
I discovered another glass window image of Mary of Egypt at the V&A Museum in February of this year, as I posted then
The V&A image, made in Cologne c. 1670