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Mary of Egypt (d. 430)

Mary of Egypt (d. 430)

Saint and Christian ascetic . Name variations: Mary the Egyptian. Born in Egypt; died in 430, in the desert of Palestine, near the river Jordan.

Mary of Egypt was a half-mythical African saint whose history is founded on that of a female hermit who lived and died in a desert near the river Jordan in Palestine. According to legend, Mary was born in Egypt and left her home at age 12, embarking on a dissolute life in Alexandria which far exceeded the reputed deeds of Mary Magdalene , with whom she is frequently confused. They are sometimes united in paintings as joint figures of female penitence. At age 29, Mary of Egypt accompanied a group of Libyans who were going to Jerusalem to witness the Exaltations of the Cross. Arriving in the Holy City, Mary of Egypt sought to join the crowd going into the temple, but found herself rooted to the ground, unable to cross the threshold. A light appeared, telling her that her sinful ways prevented her from entering, followed by a vision of Mary the Virgin . Mary of Egypt prayed for veneration, vowing to follow the path she was shown. "Cross Jordan," she was told, "and you will find peace." After confessing her sins and receiving Communion, Mary of Egypt crossed the Jordan as instructed, taking with her three loaves of bread. She remained in the desert for the next 47 years, eating only roots and herbs and communing with God. A year before her death, Mary of Egypt was visited in the desert by St. Zosimus to whom she related the story of her life. As he was leaving, she requested that he return to her on Holy Thursday of the following year to bring her the Eucharist. The monk kept his promise but found that Mary had since died. As he began to dig a grave in which to bury her, a lion appeared and with his paw assisted the monk in preparing the grave.

The earliest depictions of Mary of Egypt are thought to be in a series on the wall of the chapel of the Bargello, in Florence, and there is a celebrated painting of her by Tintoretto at the Scuola de San Rocco in Venice. Her story is also depicted in one of the painted windows of the cathedral of Chartres. According to Anna Brownell Jameson in her Legends of the Monastic Orders (1872), Mary of Egypt was also a popular saint in France, particularly with the Parisians, until she was eclipsed by the increasing popularity of Mary Magdalene. Her feast day is April 2.

Barbara Morgan, Melrose, Massachusetts

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