Venice, Tintoretto, and not a St Mary of Egypt

It’s the feast day (in most western calendars) of St Mary of Egypt, the penitent sinner about whom I’ve written here a few times, since she was the subject of my postgrad thesis.

I returned yesterday from a few days’ break with Mrs TD (it was her birthday) in Venice. I was surprised by how beautiful La Serenissima is. So many films, books and so on had made me feel like I knew what to expect. The reality took my breath away.

More perhaps on that trip next time. For now, a quick reminder that penitent Mary was, according to the original legend, so ashamed of her formally promiscuous life that she entered the Jordan desert and lived there in penitent solitude for 47 years. Her story was disseminated, according to the legend, by the monk Zosimas, who encountered her near the end of her life, and to whom she related the details of her extraordinary ascetic life.

I’d known that one of the relatively few painted representations of her in the early modern era was by the Venetian artist Tintoretto, aka Robusti (1518-94). Born Jacopo Comin, he acquired the first nickname because his father was a dyer (‘tintore’) – i.e. he’s ‘son of a dyer’. He won the commission from 1565 to produce the wall and ceiling paintings of the charitable foundation of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, eventually producing some 60 huge works. The interior of the building is so gloomy he adopted a technique that’s difficult to admire when seen in reproductions, but which enables the images to spring to life when seen in the half-light – the highlights seem to glow from within the artwork itself.

According to Vasari he won the gig in an underhand way. He and four other prominent local artists were invited to submit sketches for their projected designs. Our chap simply jumped the gun and painted the work in situ, gifting it to the foundation’s titular saint (patron of plague victims – a big deal in swampy Venice); their statutes forbade them from declining donations – so he carried on initially unpaid, and then, having started, was paid to finish. His competitors were furious.

Tintoretto's first portrait of a woman saint in the desert, reading and meditating

The man serving in the Scuola shop kindly gave me this postcard of the first portrait discussed here, after we’d discussed the identity of the figures in both pictures

In the Sala Terrena (ground floor hall), two female figures are depicted on facing walls. On the left wall a small female figure is depicted, glowing with that inner light I mentioned, a nimbus or halo around her head partly producing that glow. She leans on her left elbow, propping an open book, which she is reading, on her lap with her right. It’s a forest scene, wild and uninhabited. From medieval times the west considered ‘silva’ or forest the equivalent of eastern ‘desert’: both were devoid of human presence, and therefore intimidating and alien, hostile and fearful.

My photo of the tiny card doesn’t do the original justice: it must be three metres high.

The gnarled, twisted roots of the tree under which she reads and meditates highlight the serenity and concentration of the saintly figure: she’s oblivious of the wildness of her surroundings.

Tintoretto, Virgin or Mary of Egypt meditating

Virgin Mary or Mary of Egypt meditating, by Tintoretto

In the right-hand corner is the partner portrait. Here the seated woman has her back almost turned to the viewer. She too is sitting reading, though her gaze seems to have momentarily lifted from the book she holds in her lap, perhaps to ponder on the words she reads. There’s a stream beside her, and some buildings in the middle and further distance – maybe not quite the desert one might expect, but still a wild, inhospitable landscape.

Here’s the difficulty. According to the sources I consulted many years ago when doing my research, this second image was described as depicting Maria Egiziaca – Mary of Egypt. The Jacopo Tintoretto website today does the same. Even the leaflet the Scuola provided (in English) when I bought my entrance tickets lists these two paintings as of, respectively, Sts Mary Magdalene and Egyptian Mary.

But the same leaflet elsewhere gives a different story: both depict, in this alternative version, the Virgin Mary meditating, or else Mary Magdalene and St Elizabeth. The Scuola’s own website repeats this confusing inconsistency.

When I looked unsuccessfully for a postcard of the painting in the Scuola shop, the charming young man serving was dismissive: of course both pictures represented the Virgin. I pressed my point about the Egiziaca; no, he was adamant – it was proved, he said. The Virgin.

Cowed and crushed, I was about to slink away, when he called me back. He looked in his stock drawers by the counter, and found the postcard of the first image I’ve posted here: the alleged Magdalene. He didn’t have the not-Mary of Egypt. He gave it to me as a gift: must have seen how crushed I was.

Their website’s home page even reproduces the two images, and points out the ones currently on display are reproductions; Sky Arte HD has sponsored the restoration of these pictures: ‘The Reading Virgin’ and ‘The Virgin in Meditation’. After an exhibition in Venice in honour of the fifth centenary of the artist’s birth, the originals will be exhibited in the National Gallery in Washington.

I have to admit, there are none of the usual attributes of Egyptian Mary in this second portrait. She’s usually depicted holding the three round loaves that she bought to take with her into the desert, and with long, flowing hair – hence the similarity to the Magdalene in iconography – as I’ve said in previous posts, the two penitents are often only distinguishable by their distinctive attributes. Here she wears a sort of headscarf, holding a book, not loaves.

I’d like to think my Mary is, nevertheless, smouldering (and meditating) in the Hall of the Scuola Grande of San Rocco in central Venice.

 

St Michael’s Mount and St Mary of Egypt: an aside

 

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

St Michael’s Mount seen from the beach at Marazion

Main buildings

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).

Cannon

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.

Causeway

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.

Mary of Egypt assumption

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.

Magdalene by Gherarducci

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.

Magdalene assumption

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.

Mary of Egypt

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

V&A Mary of Egypt

The V&A image, made in Cologne c. 1670