Mary of Egypt

Nothing particularly literary about this brief post. Just wanted to share my excitement at coming across this image a couple of weekends ago. I was with two of my oldest friends, who live in Chiswick, West London, and we went up to the Victoria and Albert Museum in S. Kensington. I don’t think I’ve ever been there before.

It holds a weird pot-pourri of randomly collected objects, loosely arranged into galleries that seem ostensibly to have a logical connection, but don’t.

After a while we found ourselves passing through a hall filled with stained glass images. Out of habit, I checked a few for my saint, Mary of Egypt, the one whose medieval English lives I’d researched as a postgrad so many years ago, when I was a hagiographer. What were the chances…and there she was, as I looked at a random sequence of panels.

Dating from 1670, made in Cologne, the panels depict the penitent saint kneeling before the Virgin and child. It seems to have been made to celebrate the marriage of Anna Geilsbach. Here’s what the V&A say about it on their website (though I’d be happy to update their cursory summary of her legend):

This painted oval panel was probably commissioned by Anna Geilsbach as a marriage panel. It may have been in her home originally, or donated to her local church.

In the middle of the 16th century, new techniques for producing decorated glass were introduced. Glass paints known as ‘enamels’ were used to paint directly onto the glass, similar to painting onto a canvas. To produce the colours, metallic oxides were added to a glass frit mixture. The resulting colour range included delicate blues and greens, as we see here in this panel.

The V&A is one of the strangest, most fascinating museums I’ve ever visited. It’s as if benefactors across the years and continents have said to the directors: I have all this eclectic stuff, would you like it? And they’re like, yeah, please. And they stick it all into galleries.

And it’s all free. Wonderful. Here’s another nice image from another irrelevant room: it’s St Jerome, but I neglected to make a note of who made it, or when. But it’s rather splendid – even without his usual attribute (as a hermit) of a mournful lion:


5 thoughts on “Mary of Egypt

  1. I love the V&A. Before we left England and when I was very small, my father took me there and I was totally captivated by it. I was a bit disappointed decades later when I visited it with my husband, only to discover that the Queen Anne dollhouses had been siphoned off to the toy museum somewhere else in London.
    But to compensate, I was ecstatic to find the model of Trajan’s Column. Walking into the gallery where it is, I didn’t see the signage at first, and I was nonplussed. I hadn’t seen the real thing in Rome then, but I knew how big it was, and I couldn’t imagine Rome parting with it, and I was sure I would have heard about it – even in Australia – if it had been broken in two. If in fact that could have happened without the whole thing crumbling to bits… I kept walking around it, marvelling at the scenes of one triumph after another, saying ‘It can’t be…I didn’t know it was here…’
    It wasn’t the real thing of course, it was a cast, made for students to explore. I still wonder how they made it and marvel that they were able to transport the casts without breakage. What a wonderful object, and how I would have loved it when I was studying classics and reduced to 2D images in books!

    • Lovely story, Lisa. It is store of treasures, with some strange juxtapositions: a wealthy American couple donate their collection- mostly silver, some statues & other artefacts – so there they all are in one gallery. So you keep coming across unexpected delights.

  2. I love the Victoria and Albert. It’s so very—Victorian. It’s like an eclectic palate cleanser if you need a break from the Tate or the National Gallery. And a very fine source of postcards.

  3. Pingback: Mary of Egypt's Day - Tredynas Days

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