venerating Marian icon in the life of Mary of Egypt

icon of St. Mary of Egypt

As a young woman in the large, ancient city of Alexandria, Mary of Egypt exercised her strong, independent sexuality. Driven by her carnal interests, Mary traveled with a large group of men to Jerusalem. There throngs celebrated the discovery of a relic of the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Mary, however, was unable to enter the church that held the cross. An “overwhelming power” held her back.

Mary’s prayer to a Marian icon released her from the sins that held her back. While standing in the church courtyard lamenting her exclusion, “a salvific word touched the eyes of my heart.” She recognized her sinful behavior:

I began to cry, lamenting and beating my breast, raising sighs from the depths of my heart.  As I was crying, I saw the icon of the all-holy Mother of God standing above the place where I stood. I looked straight at Her and said, “Virgin Lady, Thou Who didst give flesh to God the Word by birth, I know, I know well that it is neither decent, nor reasonable for me who is so filthy and utterly prodigal, to look upon Thy icon. … help me, a lone woman who has no one to help her. Command that I, too, may be allowed to enter the church. … Command, my Lady, that the door may be opened also to me, that I may venerate the divine cross; … from the moment I look upon the wood of Thy Son’s cross, I shall immediately renounce the world and all worldly things, and I shall go wherever Thou shall instruct and guide me, as the guarantor of my salvation. [1]

As soon as she spoke these words, Mary “received the fire of faith just like some kind of assurance.” She entered the church effortlessly. She saw the relic of the “life-giving cross.” She kissed the ground in front of it. Then Mary rushed outside to address the icon. Kneeling in front of it, she said:

O my Lady, Thou Who lovest goodness hast shown me Thy love for mankind, for Thou didst not abhor the prayers of an unworthy woman. … Guide me now wherever Thou dost command. Be the teacher of my salvation and guide me toward the path which leads to repentance.

A voice instructed Mary to cross the river Jordan and go into the desert wilderness. There Mary lived an austere and secluded life. The story of her life established her as Saint Mary of Egypt, a desert mother. She became an eremitic leader greater than Saint Paul the First Hermit and the famous Saint Antony.

Attributing spiritual powers to images has been common among humans across cultures and throughout history.  In Western Eurasia, the status of images in Christianity were central to major political conflict. In Byzantium in the eighth and ninth centuries and in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, authorities fought viciously over whether images had extra-representational powers. The Protestant Reformation and the rise of secularism have formed the main stream of Western Eurasian elite culture. Parochialism within that culture has obscured the pervasiveness of humans attributing spiritual powers to images.[2]

The life of Mary of Egypt was written in Greek probably in the seventh century.[3] It provides poignant witness to the deep human roots of ascribing spiritual powers to relics and icons.

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[1] Life of Mary of Egypt, the Former Harlot, from Greek trans. Kouli (1996) p. 84. All subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 84-5. Here’s an online English translation of Mary of Egypt’s life. The ancient translation into Latin is similar. Ward (1987) provides an English translation of the Latin, as well as excerpts in translation from earlier accounts. “The phrase “Command, my Lady, that the door may be opened also to me,” is similar to early Coptic Marian prayers for ritual power. The Piacenza Pilgrim, writing about 570, reported venerating the true cross in Jerusalem in the Basilica of Constantine. He also reported:

There is the sponge and the reed, of which mention is made in the gospel, and we drank water from the sponge. There is also the cup of onyx, which our Lord blessed at the last supper, and many other relics. Above is the painting of the Blessed Mary and her girdle, and the wrapper which she wore upon her head.

Ch. XX, from Latin trans. Stewart & Wilson (1896) p. 17. Epiphanios the Monk in the eighth century stated that he saw “on the left side of Saint Constantine … the icon of the very holy Theotokos, who forbade Saint Mary to enter the church on the day of the Exaltation.” Kouli (1996) p. 83, n. 49.

[2] For a learned failure to appreciate the pervasiveness of icon use, see Brubaker & Haldon (2011).

[3] Kouli (1996) p. 66, 68. Manuscripts attribute the Life of Mary of Egypt to Sophronios (lived c. 560 – 638). Sophronios was patriarch of Jerusalem from 634 to 638. In the eighth century, John of Damascus cited the Life of Mary of Egypt and Paul the Deacon in Italy translated it into Latin. The Life provides no indication of Islam.

[image] Icon of St. Mary of Egypt, Russia, 18th century, now held in Kuopio Orthodox Church Museum. Thanks to Wikicommons.


Brubaker, Leslie, and John F. Haldon. 2011. Byzantium in the iconoclast era (c. 680-850): a history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kouli, Maria. 1996. “Life of Mary of Egypt, the Former Harlot.” Pp. 65-94 in Talbot, Alice-Mary Maffry, ed. 1996. Holy women of Byzantium: ten saints’ lives in English translation. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Stewart, Aubrey, and Charles William Wilson, ed. and trans. 1896. Of the holy places visited by Antoninus Martyr (circ. 560-570 A.D.). London: Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society.

Ward, Benedicta. 1987. Harlots of the desert: a study of repentance in early monastic sources. Kalamazoo, Mich: Cistercian Publications.

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