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.
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.
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.