Thursday, April 02, 2020

The Feast of Saint Mary of Egypt

The feast of St Mary of Egypt has never been on the General Calendar, but it is often found in the supplements of the Missal and Breviary “for certain places.” April 2 is the most common date, but in several places it was kept on April 9, and in the Byzantine Rite it is on April 1.

The Golden Legend and the Roman Martyrology note that she is also called “the Sinner”; according to her legend, she was a prostitute or actress (in the Roman world, often more or less the same thing,) so given to the indulgence of the flesh that she often did not bother to charge her clients. After many years of a gravely and publicly sinful life, she went to Jerusalem by ship, with a crowd of pilgrims going to the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross; not, as yet, a pilgrim herself, but in pursuit of new transgressions among the sailors. In the city, she tried to enter the Holy Sepulcher, but was mysteriously prevented from doing so by some unseen power; this opened her eyes to the true nature of the life she was leading, the beginning of a complete conversion. Before an icon of the Virgin Mary, she vowed herself to a new life of penance, and was then able to enter the church. Coming outside, she went to offer thanks before the icon, and heard a voice saying to her “If you cross the Jordan, you will be saved.” She therefore crossed the Jordan into the desert, where she remained in complete solitude for nearly half a century. 

Shortly before her death, she was discovered by a monk named Zosimas, to whom she recounted the story of her early sins, conversion, and many years of penance in the desert; at first, he could not even tell that she was a woman, so emaciated was she by her fasting. She is often depicted with long wild hair, from the story that what Zosimas at first took for a garment of camel-hair like that of St John the Baptist was actually her own hair. One year after discovering her, Zosimas returned on Holy Thursday to bring her Communion, which she had received only one other time, right before going into the desert. On returning the year after that, he discovered her dead; she had written in the dirt near the place where her body lay that she had died on the day of the Lord’s Passion, just after receiving Holy Communion, and asking Zosimus to bury her. (Pictured right: Zosimas, realizing that Mary is covered only in her hair, offers her a cloak; note that he is dressed as a Cistercian. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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. Furthermore, on the Thursday of the fifth week of Lent, her life by St Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (530 ca. - 638), is read at Orthros before the chanting of the Great Penitential Canon of St Andrew of Crete.
A seventeenth-century Russian icon of Mary of Egypt, with stories of her life in the border. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
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, Ss 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 having taken up the Cross, thou didst follow Christ, and by so doing, didst teach us to disregard the flesh, for it passeth away, but to care for the soul as an immortal thing. Therefore, Holy Mary, thy spirit rejoiceth with the Angels. (The troparion of her feast.)
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 by Tintoretto, who had worked in various parts of the Scuola over 23 years, and was almost seventy when he did these 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.

The Penitent Magdalene, by Donatello, ca. 1455
The Assumption of Mary Magdalene by Antonio Pollaiuolo, ca. 1460.
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 (today and Saturday), six times in Holy Week, and three times in Easter Week.

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