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,

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 PrĂ©, Paris, 1489

7 thoughts on “Mary of Egypt’s Day

  1. Happy St Mary’s day! Interesting that a lion is just passing in the desert, and able to help Zosimus bury her. I didn’t know deserts had lions!

    • Gmac: zoological accuracy isn’t the only one in these hagiographic accounts! There are lions aplenty in them. They were intended purely to edifying, so factual objectivity wasn’t a priority

  2. It’s fascinating, from a feminist PoV, to find yet another example of women spending a whole lifetime in repentance for sexual sin. I’m reading Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell, a C19th story in which an innocent young woman is seduced by a Cad, and must do a lot of weeping and praying for the rest of her life to make up for it. It’s a tradition that goes back a very long way…

    • Lisa: quite right – there are, however, some male penitents- but most of their sins were non-sexual. I haven’t read Ruth, but the theme is prevalent in Victorian & earlier fiction- Tess, etc.

  3. I just finished reading Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra. It made me wonder if there were any of Isis’s characteristics associated with St. Mary?

    • Paula: interesting question. I don’t think Isis has any particular characteristics associated with Mary E: she’s more akin to the Virgin Mary as a Christian analogue, being depicted in iconography typically nursing or holding her baby, Horus. She’s associated with the virtues of motherhood – a far cry from Egyptian Mary, with her background as a prostitute; in the middle ages women would invoke her in their prayers to prevent or abort unwanted pregnancies, or to protect their unborn child if they were more sanguine about the pregnancy. She became particularly popular in medieval times as the cult of the Virgin grew; Mary of Egypt’s story tended to appear in the widely circulated Miracles of the Virgin collections of ‘exempla’ – stories illustrating the healing powers of the Virgin as intercessor with her son and with God on behalf of even the most egregious sinners. Not sure what the patriarchy today makes of all this…

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