The medieval vitae of St. Mary of Egypt – A comparison of versions and translations

Hooray, here’s yet another somewhat ambitious science project:

These are the preliminary stages of a parallel comparison of several medieval versions and translations of the vita of St. Mary of Egypt – from the 7th century Greek legend attributed to Sophronios, to its 7th and 9th century Latin translations, to the heavily abridged 13th century version from Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea, etc.

[Screenshot – Currently there are five parallel vitae, plus expandable translations into English and German for Sophronios‘ Βίος Μαρίας Αἰγύπτιας and for de Voragine’s De sancta Maria Aegyptiaca.]

As I have argued in my bachelor thesis (which contains a more complete parallelised comparison of several Aegyptiaca legends), the older, pre-Legenda Aurea versions of the Aegyptiaca narrative are the key to deciphering the iconographical programme of the Magdalene window of San Francesco in Assisi.

So far, this window’s iconography has only been poorly understood, with no consensus among authors concerning even a basic order or sequence of its images, let alone a coherent narrative. It is this obscurity that prompted Giuseppe Marchini, renowned scholar of Italian stained glass windows and author of the volume on Umbria of the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi, to dub it the most mysterious of all the windows in San Francesco:

»La vetrata della Cappella della Maddalena è la più enigmatica«.

Giuseppe Marchini, Le vetrate della Basilica di San Francesco, in: Amleto Giovanni Cicognani (ed.): Giotto e i giotteschi in Assisi (Il miracolo di Assisi. Collana di studi sull’arte assisana), Assisi 1969, p. 288.

I, therefore, argue for a new, consistent reading of the horizontal and vertical structure of the window of the Magdalene chapel. It is my understanding that it draws closely on the unabridged legend of Mary of Egypt by employing the icon of the Mother of God as Hodegetria – which translates as „guide“ or „leader“ – as a threshold figure, and quite literally so: It is only the intercession of the Mother of God, that enables the pilgrim – Mary of Egypt, and the real-life pilgrim emulating her – to enter the inner sanctum, which, in Mary’s case, is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; in the pilgrim’s case it is the directly adjacent transept of the lower church containing the sepulchre of Saint Francis.

[From the Magdalene window in San Francesco – Maria as Mother of God and Hodegetria]

Another, closely related reason for the prominent placing of Mary of Egypt in the Magdalen chapel, which functions as the immediate antechamber to the transept, is Bonaventure’s utilisation of her vita. It has hitherto been overlooked that in both his legends of Saint Francis, Bonaventure for the first time sets a concrete date for the Saint’s stigmatisation, September 14th, by very obviously connecting Francis‘ vita to that of the legendary Desert Mother: Francis‘ stigmatisation, his imitatio crucis, now falls on the Feast of the Cross – the exaltatio crucis, which Mary of Egypt so desperately longed to participate in at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

In light of these findings, which I plan to elaborate on further in the future, I think it is safe to say that the role of St. Mary of Egypt for the early history of the Franciscan order has to be thoroughly re-evaluated.