07 April 2017
Recently I was going through the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery with a friend, who asked how we know which saint is which. This is a fair question; medieval manuscripts do not always supply captions with their images. But luckily for future curators, medieval artists often identified saints and other figures by means of special attributes associated with them. St Peter often holds a set of keys. St Catherine frequently rests on a wheel, since she was said to have broken the wheel on which she was supposed to be martyred. And if you see a woman completely covered in long hair and holding three loaves, chances are it's a depiction of Mary of Egypt.
Mary Magdalene (holding an unguent pot), Mary of Egypt, Margaret piercing a dragon, and a martyr holding a palm, from the Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 308v
According to a saint’s life written by Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem, Mary of Egypt was born somewhere in Egypt in the middle of the 4th century. At the age of 12, she ran away from her parents to Alexandria, where she appears to have lived a Late Antique version of ‘Sex and the City’. Sophronius particularly condemns her enjoyment of her numerous amorous liaisons.
Opening of Paul the Deacon's Latin translation of the Sophronius's Life of Mary of Egypt, from the Cotton-Corpus Legendary, Cotton MS Nero E I/1, f. 179r
According to Sophronius, Mary eventually went to Jerusalem for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. She was not interested in the religious festival, but was rather looking for more sexual partners. However, she found she could not enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre until she repented of her lifestyle and promised to become a hermit. Stricken with remorse, she travelled into the wilderness, taking only three loaves of bread as sustenance.
Mary and her loaves, from the Taymouth Hours, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 188v
While in the wilderness, Mary was spotted by St Zosimas, who tossed her his mantle and persuaded her to tell him her story. Zosimas went looking for her again a year later, but found her dead, and buried her with the aid of a helpful lion (as you do).
Zosimas hands Mary his cloak, from the Dunois Hours, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 287r
Mary became a popular figure in medieval art and literature. This is perhaps not surprising, given her memorable life, openness about her previous lifestyle, and her distinctive appearance. A whole series of bas-de-page scenes in the Smithfield Decretals (Royal MS 10 E IV) were devoted to her, and she appears in countless devotional texts.
Detail of Mary heading into the wilderness with her three loaves, from the Smithfield Decretals, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 271v
Detail of Mary of Egypt and some monkeys, from the Smithfield Decretals, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 275r
Nevertheless, different artists interpreted her story slightly differently.
Don't look now! St Zosimas decorously looks away as he hands St Mary a cloak, from the Theodore Psalter, Add MS 19352, f. 68r
Be warned, however: not all hairy ladies are Mary of Egypt. Mary Magdalene, who was also construed as an ex-prostitute in some medieval accounts of her life, was sometimes depicted with long hair, as seen in the Sforza Hours.
Miniature accompanying prayers relating to Mary Magdalene, from the Sforza Hours, Add MS 34294, f. 211v
Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 58v
And, of course, there’s always the bearded lady of Limerick, as noted by Gerald of Wales.
Detail of the bearded lady of Limerick and the ox man of Wicklow, from a copy of Gerald of Wales' Topographia Hiberniae, Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 19r
Medieval artists—and modern curators—certainly loved ladies who knew how to let their hair down.
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