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).