The popularity of St. Mary of Egypt was very great in the Middle Ages, especially in the Low Countries, France and the Iberian peninsula, less so in Italy and among the religious orders; stained glass windows depicting her are still seen at Chartres, Bourges and Auxerre. In Central Europe, devotion to her seems to have flourished especially in Poland, Bohemia and Hungary, that is to say, among those with neighbors using the Byzantine Rite, in which she is a very prominent figure. In addition to her feast on April 1, she is also commemorated on the Fifth Sunday of the Byzantine Great Lent.
It is interesting to note the sequence of special commemorations on these five Sundays. The first is often called the Feast of Orthodoxy, celebrating the triumph of the orthodox faith over iconoclasm; the third is dedicated to the veneration of the Holy Cross, the second and fourth to great spiritual teachers of the Byzantine tradition, Saints Gregory Palamas and John Climacus respectively. As Lent draws closer to the days of Christ’s Passion and Death, however, its last Sunday is devoted to a Saint who lived in total obscurity and severe penance for most of her life, a woman who could not read, but was taught the mysteries of the Christian faith by God Himself through her humility and asceticism. The liturgy therefore calls her a “teacher” as it does also Gregory Palamas and John Climacus:
In thee, O Mother, was carefully preserved what is according to the Image. For thou didst take the Cross and follow Christ. By so doing thou didst teach us to disregard the flesh, for it passeth away, but to care for the soul as an immortal thing. Therefore, St. Mary, thy spirit rejoiceth with the Angels. (Troparion of the 5th Sunday of Lent)
In Rome, Mary of Egypt was formerly honored by a very small church near the Tiber (now deconsecrated), a temple of the harbor-god Portunus converted into a church by Greek monks in 872, very close to the principal Greek-rite church of the city. At Aquileia, the patriarchal see of the Veneto, her feast was kept on April 9, probably also under Greek influence, which is very prominent in that region both religiously and artistically. Perhaps the most famous representation of her in Italian art is in Venice itself, a city where Byzantine influence is also very notable. At the Scuola di San Rocco, the seat of a charitable confraternity which is often described as the Sistine Chapel of Venice, Saints Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt (pictured right) are shown opposite each other; these and the other paintings in the hall are the works of Tintoretto, who had worked in various parts of the Scuola over 23 years, and was almost seventy when he did these paintings on the ground-floor hall between 1583 and 1587. Both appear as luminous figures in a dark, chaotic landscape, the image of the sinful world, and both have books in their hands, symbolizing both contemplation and wisdom. In their pose and dress they are also very similar, so much so that were it not for the presence of the river Jordan, isolating Mary of Egypt from the houses in the background, we should hardly be able to tell them apart. Tintoretto is not the only artist to represent the two penitent saints in a similar manner. The Florentine sculptor Donatello in his famous statue of Mary Magdalene shows her with the long flowing hair covering her entire body like a garment, an iconography borrowed from that of Mary of Egypt; in the next generation, the painter Antonio del Pollaiuolo follows suit. Indeed, the belief that the sins of Mary Magdalene were particularly of a sexual nature seems to arise from this artistic and iconographic conflation of the two saints.
Following the tradition that Mary Magdalene is also the woman who anointed Christ’s feet, both are celebrated in the Western tradition as models of repentance during the season of Lent; Mary of Egypt’s feast usually falls within Lent, while “the Apostle of the Apostles” appears in the Gospel at Mass twice in Passion week, six times in Holy Week, and three times in Easter Week. By a particular coincidence while will not occur again until 2095 A.D., Mary of Egypt’s feast also coincides this year with the traditional day to read the Pericope of the Adulteress, in whose person Christ says to the whole Church, and to each of us individually, “Go forth and sin no more.”