Mary of Egypt’s Day

Russian icon Mary of Egypt

17C Russian icon with sequence of scenes from her life. Image from WikiMedia commons By Anonymous – Beliy Gorod, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2772328

Once again it’s the feast day of St Mary of Egypt – subject of my postgrad research.

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 Cambridge, Fitzwilliam MS 19, a Book of Hours from Chartres

I’ve written about her here before – links at the end – and about the events in her life. She was one of a popular medieval hagiographical type: the penitent sinner. Her legend has much in common with that of Mary Magdalene, with whom she’s easily confused in iconographical representations. Both tend to be depicted in the Western tradition naked or half-clothed, with long flowing hair. Eastern images (usually Greek or Russian) are more faithful to the way she’s described in the original Greek Life by Sophronius: when she’s first encountered in the desert by Zosimus, she’s said to look old and haggard, with short white hair. Interesting that in the West the image is more glamorous and erotically charged.

Auxerre Mary

Statue in the porch of Auxerre Cathedral, France. It’s a typical Western representation of an attractive young woman with flowing hair, holding her loaves. She seems to be partly draped with the cloak Zosimus throws to her so that she can cover her nakedness.

Egyptian Mary’s distinctive attribute is the three loaves she holds, bought (according to the legend) as she left Jerusalem after her epiphany and repentance at the porch of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, prior to her entering the desert. There she wandered for 47 years, eating nothing else, until she was discovered by the monk Zosimus.

Caxton's Mary

Woodcut from Caxton’s ‘Vitas Patrum’, printed by Wynkyn de Worde, Westminster, 1495. Here she’s modestly and fully clothed, but still youthful in appearance. Zosimus appears not to have passed her his cloak, as the original legend relates

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He returned at her request the following year to administer communion. When he returned the year after, he found her dead body. He buried her with the help of a passing lion.

In most calendars her festival is recorded as 2 April, but in some it’s the 1st or 9th.

Links to previous posts on Mary:

19 Feb. this year: stained glass image in the V&A Museum

7 March, 2016: Summary of her Life, with various images. Here I promised to write a post some time about the various English versions of her life; maybe I will…some time.

27 Feb, 2016: stained glass window at Bredon church

Unless otherwise stated, images are my own photos of plates in my 1993 thesis

French Life Mary

From a French translation of the ‘Legenda Aurea’, a famous medieval Latin collection of saints’ legends by Voragine; this edition was printed by Jean du Pré, Paris, 1489

Mary of Egypt again

I don’t want to write about the novel I finished reading recently; Phil Hogan wrote a piece back in the Guardian in September last year, when Sebastian Faulks’s Where My Heart Used to Beat was published, that says it all – ‘enjoyable but uneven’.

Instead I shall resume the subject started in my previous post: the legend of St Mary of Egypt. There I wrote about the medieval stained glass window in Bredon depicting her. Now I’d like to provide a little more detail about her story and its status in England from the early middle ages onwards.

For a full, academic account of the background I’d recommend Jane Stevenson’s contribution as ch. 2.1 of a collection of essays entitled The Legend of Mary of Egypt in Medieval Insular Hagiography, edited by Erich Poppe and Bianca Ross (Dublin, 1996). My own essay on her legend in medieval England appears as ch. 3.2. I have adapted these detailed accounts to provide a summary view here.

The Latin Vita which served as main source for all Western vernacular versions of Mary’s story was translated by Paul the Deacon of Naples  in the ninth century (as I noted in my previous post) from an earlier Greek Life, probably as a consequence of preoccupations at the time with the problems of sin and redemption, and of an intensifying reverence for the Virgin not only as an effective and maternal intercessor for sinners, but also as their protector and provider of salvation. Like the story of Theophilus, also translated by Paul, the story demonstrated an encouraging hope for lapsed sinners, and the possibility of their redemption through the purifying sacraments of penance and communion: their sins do not automatically consign them to hell. The eternal problem of absolution was pleasingly solved for the Christian readers of Naples (and of later readers of vernacular versions) in these reassuring stories in which sinners in extremis turn to the Virgin and and are saved.

Transmission of the Greek version to the West probably happened when Palestinian Christians fled Persian invaders in 614. Many went to Italy, taking with them religious texts of this kind. A new influx of refugees from the Iconoclast Persecutions arrived between the eighth and tenth centuries. Evidence of a cult of Mary of Egypt by the ninth century in Italy is found in the existence of frescoes in a church later dedicated in her name in Rome, and another in Naples, where there was also a street named after her.

The Greek Life derives from a variety of orally transmitted ancient anecdotes, and later writings about implausibly ascetic ‘hairy anchorites’ (or others less hirsute) dating from the very early days of Christianity in the Middle East, from the prototype life of desert hermits, St Anthony, written in Greek by Athanasius between 356-62, to St Jerome’s Life of St Paul the Hermit, written c. 374, itself inspired by Anthony’s story, collections of anecdotes and biographies of the early desert saints and various edifying stories about desert ascetics.

Mary of Egypt in the S. English Legendary

Mary as depicted in Oxford, Bodleian MS Tanner 17 (early-mid. 15C), a copy of the late 13C S. English Legendary, a popular hagiographical collection in the vernacular. Image taken from the Bodleian website of Tanner MSS

Most of these texts contain a stock selection of motifs that recur in Mary’s legend – friendly lions, the Visitor edified by the example of a Hairy Anchorite (in later Western versions, unlike the Greek account, in which she is described by Zosimus, the wandering monk who encounters Mary in the desert beyond Jordan, as having short white hair and a hideous, wrinkled body, she is depicted as youthful and beautiful, with luxuriant hair to her ankles covering her alluring nakedness, but which passing breezes enticingly reveal; Western medieval iconography represents Mary in this way, although she isn’t always shown naked – the Bredon window about which I wrote last time shows her fully clothed; so does the MS illumination shown here.)

There remains an obvious element of sexual prurience in the story, as these medieval European images of Egyptian Mary and the Magdalene came to show; Orthodox Eastern icons and other images adhered to the Greek tradition of a haggard, short-haired Mary, as shown next:

Greek psalter image of Mary of Egypt

London, BL, Add. MSS, 19352, fol. 68r, for Psalm 54, 8 (1066, the Theodore Psalter, in Greek). Here Zosimus is shown as he often is, handing Mary his cloak to cover her gaunt nakedness, while averting his eyes, as she flees from him. Note the short hair.Image from the Greek Orthodox ‘Pemptousia’ website.

 

Mary’s thaumaturgical powers also reflect a tradition going back to the Bible, and reiterated in countless edifying biographies of holy Christian figures: diorasis, or divination of a visitor’s name and status (as a sign of the hermit’s spiritual perfection, compared with the visitor-monk’s flawed state); miraculous clairvoyance; ability to travel huge distances in minutes and to walk across the waters of the Jordan; ability to write messages in the sand when the writer had earlier confessed to being illiterate – and so on.

The Greek Life greatly expands the role of Mary’s discoverer. This version blends the stories of the two characters to illustrate their symbiotic relationship: the monk undergoes an epiphany – his unmerited pride is revealed to him when he is amazed and edified by this penitent female sinner’s example; he returns to his monastery with a new mission for himself and his community – to strive humbly to emulate Mary, without the sense of competition or spiritual superiority of which he’d previously been guilty. Mary meanwhile needs the priest-monk to administer to her the elements of communion. The story therefore establishes the spiritual significance of the priest in the ceremony of the mass; the power of the Virgin as intermediary for sinners; the miraculous powers of ascetics and the attendant significance of true penitence; and the need for disciplined religious communities to avoid spiritual pride and to heed the lessons provided by solitary hermits.

What makes Mary’s story more significant is that the solitary ascetic who inspires such awe and reverence in this male pillar of the supposedly devout monastic community was a penitent woman. We needn’t become too swayed by the view that hers is therefore a proto-feminist account; it arose from an early Christian male mistrust of women. In her youth, in the original Greek Life and its first Latin translations, she wasn’t really a prostitute; she was simply promiscuous, often having sex with men without payment. She was typical of the contemporary misogynistic male view of women as fallen descendants of Eve, and the tradition going back to Greco-Roman times that women were inherently more lustful than men, more impulsive and unrestrained, and hence a grave danger to all males, and socially worthless unless chaste or married.

On the other hand the story illustrates a change in such attitudes in the Byzantine sixth century, some of them originating in the monastic movement. Female outsiders like prostitutes or beggars began to be seen more sympathetically; the Greek Life, and later vernacular redactions of it via the Latin, portray Mary as fully human and individual, less of a type of vice. The balancing portrayal of the Virgin, and the revival of her cult in Europe from the early medieval period, would also explain the popularity of the story of this penitent sinner.

There is plenty of evidence attesting to Mary of Egypt’s cult in England from the early middle ages. Her feast-day was commemorated there as early perhaps as the late seventh century, in Northumbria. She figures in just under half the surviving liturgical calendars of the Anglo-Saxon period, with indications of a centre of devotion in the southwest. Her name is frequently found (but not by any means universally) in calendars, litanies and other texts from the later medieval period in England, including a St Paul’s, London calendar with which Chaucer was familiar.

Additional evidence of the growing interest in Mary in medieval England is provided by references to her relics in several documents (a 15C record of relics held at Westminster Abbey, for example, cites the existence of a part of her skull from the relic collection of Queen Emma, who died c. 1052, the wife of Ethelred the Unready). She was one of the saints prayed to by women wanting to conceive (or to terminate an unwanted pregnancy – at least among the ‘folles filles’ of Paris, according to a late medieval Parisian calendar). Such relics played a key role in reintegrating outsiders into the Christian community, and Mary’s story clearly dramatises how her initial exclusion from the holiest of churches (the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem) because of her sinfulness is followed by her admission to worship with the congregation after her prayer of repentance to the image of the Virgin. The tomb of Christ was the relic site par excellence for Christians, and Mary’s admission there typifies the cleansing power of shrines (and the intercessory power of the Virgin and her icons).

This account is becoming rather long, so I’ll stop there. Another time I’ll continue with a review of the Old English version of Mary’s story, and the four Middle English redactions, and one in Middle Scots. They are all found in large hagiographical collections compiled between the late 13C and 1495. I’ll finish for now with another delightful pictorial representation, depicting Mary in the usual Western style, with her hair (and hand) modestly covering her, while Zosimus hands her his cloak – without averting his eyes. Here’s the whole page, with the introductory heading from the BL website; it’s The French Dunois Hours, c 1440, BL Yates Thompson MS 3, fol. 287. Zosimus is depicted as a Benedictine in a white cuculla or cowl (though the order is best known as the Black Monks, since they moved away from white or grey habits to black.)

Yates Thompson 3  f. 287  Mary of Egypt
Mary of Egypt

Penitent sinners, prostitutes and desert saints

I’ve just returned from a refreshing week’s break in rural Herefordshire. I was able while there to revisit the beautiful parish church of St Giles in Bredon, Worcestershire, an early medieval building with an impressive 161-foot spire (featuring in poems by Masefield and Housman). This was a pilgrimage to see the 14C stained glass panel in a window on the north wall.

The two Mary panels

The grisaille background (monochrome grey) contains the coats of arms in the trefoil of the families of Tattershall and Bellingham, and of Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick (d. 1439), all of Worcestershire

There are two such panels, one depicting St Mary Magdalene, holding her iconographical emblem of a jar of ointment, but the one of greater interest for me is a rare example of a representation of St Mary of Egypt, who was the subject of my postgraduate research – a study of the medieval English versions of her legend.

 

Both saints were penitent sinners, said to have been prostitutes (though the Magdalene’s story is largely unsubstantiated in the scriptures, and may have been calqued on Egyptian Mary’s legend in the early middle ages). The earliest version of her legend was written in Greek prose by St Sophronius (c.560-638), a teacher, ascetic, monk and ultimately Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-38). It relates how Mary lived a debauched life in Alexandria, despite having been raised as a Christian.

Tired of life in Alexandria, she set sail on a ship full of pilgrims bound for Jerusalem, paying her fare by sleeping with the passengers. Once in the holy city she decided to visit the church of the Holy Sepulchre, but some mysterious force prevented her from entering through the door. Realising that the cause was her moral impurity, she fell to her knees before an icon of the Virgin Mary and repented, vowing to renounce her sinful ways. She was then able to enter and venerate the relic of the cross.

She returned to the icon to give thanks, and a voice told her to enter the desert beyond Jordan, where she would find peace. She visited the monastery of St John the Baptist on the banks of the river, where she took communion. Then she left to enter the desert, taking with her only three loaves of bread – these round loaves are her emblem in iconography – though I can’t see them in my photo of the window; the panel on the right shows a figure holding what might be three loaves, but looks to me more like the Magdalene’s ointment jar. The Latin inscription underneath the panel is illegible in my image. She is indistinguishable from the Magdalene apart from those emblems – the loaves and the jar: both are depicted as young, pretty women with long flowing hair. I once wrote excitedly to the vicar of a church in Farnham, believing I’d found another Egyptian Mary in a medieval wall painting in his church; sadly, he pointed out that this was another Mary Magdalene…

Mary of Egypt

The left panel, which shows I think Maria Egyptiaca, though no loaves are visible, and her name isn’t clear in the inscription beneath her

She wandered in the desert living the ascetic life of a hermit for 47 years, subsisting on the three loaves, until one day she was spotted by a monk named Zozimus. He was engaged in the customary Lent practice of his monastery of wandering in the desert with minimal sustenance as an ascetic devotion. When he saw the fleeing figure of Mary he was unsure if she was human or a demon. He pursued her and called out to her. When he neared her he saw that she was naked, haggard, with short white hair – and a woman. She asked him to cast her his cloak, which he did, and she covered her nakedness.

She told him her remarkable story, showing miraculous knowledge of events beyond the desert. She asked Zozimus to return the following Holy Thursday and to bring with him the elements of communion. This he duly did. When he saw her on the opposite bank of the Jordan he despaired, for no boat was visible. He was astounded to see her walk towards him over the waters of the river.

Mary Magdalene

The right panel, showing Mary Magdalene with her ointment jar (I think)

He administered her communion, and she asked him to return the same time the following year; this he promised to do. When he returned he found her dead body in the desert. Beside the corpse he found a message written in the sand (she had told him she was illiterate) informing him that she had died the very night he had left her the previous year. Her body was miraculously preserved incorrupt. The message went on to ask him to bury her body to protect it from the wild animals of the desert.

 

This plunged him into deeper despair, for the ground was hard, and he was old an frail. At this point a lion appeared. Terrified, Zozimus made to flee, but the lion fawned at the feet of dead woman, and showed every sign of meekness. It then dug a grave with its claws, and helped Zozimus lift her body into the grave (a scene depicted in several stained glass window sequences in churches and cathedrals in France, and in iconography elsewhere).

Zozimus returned to his monastery and related his story, where it was preserved as an oral record, and written down by Sophronius. Maybe another time I’ll say some more about the transmission of this legend via Latin versions into the vernacular languages of medieval Europe. The Bollandist monks based in Brussels, who have been recording the Lives of the Saints from earliest sources since the 17C, place the date of her death as 421, but others say it was a century later. It is unlikely that she ever existed, for her story can be traced in variant forms in several other ascetic apophthegms, saints’ lives and anecdotes.

There are very few surviving images of this little-known saint in Britain (she was more popular and venerated in France and Spain). There is a delightful painted roodscreen (also 14C, if memory serves) in the church at the village of Kenn, just outside Exeter in Devon, and a stained glass window in the chapel at New College, Oxford. There was another in York Minster in the middle ages, but it no longer exists.

Quite why this window in rural Worcestershire (and those other isolated examples) was made is a mystery to me. Although her name is found in martyrologies, psalters, books of hours and other devotional texts from the Anglo-Saxon period onward, from the west of England to the north, there seems never to have been a developed cult in this country.

I’m just delighted that this charming panel survived the depredations of the iconoclasts who destroyed many of the images in Britain’s places of worship after the Reformation. Although I’m not a Catholic, or even a practising Christian, I find legends such as Mary of Egypt’s an intriguing reflection of the minds and beliefs of the people of the medieval world. By tracing the various English redactions and re-tellings of her legend from Old English to the prose version by Caxton in the 15C, my thesis was able to show how her example appealed to those ordinary people who sought comfort in her forgiveness. She became a feature of the early medieval cycles of Miracles of the BVM that circulated throughout Europe (in Latin and in vernacular languages) in the early middle ages. She became the unofficial patron saint of pregnant women, of ‘fallen’ women, and of penitent sinners in general. Her feast day is usually celebrated in the Western church on April 2, but it’s also recorded as the 1st or 9th April.

Perhaps I’ll say some more about her story and cult another time, then. She’s often depicted in medieval MSS, icons and paintings and in later works of art – often, anachronistically, as young, attractive and covered to her feet, to hide her nakedness, by luxuriant blonde hair. She’s featured in numerous modern works of literature (for example, she’s in Goethe’s Faust and namechecked in William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions), music (including operas by Respighi and Sir John Tavener) and art (from Ribera to Emil Nolde).