The Golden Legend’s account of St. Mary of Egypt is based ultimately on a 7th-century Life by Sophronius of Jerusalem. According to the Legend, Mary was an Egyptian prostitute who at the age of 29 traveled to Jerusalem out of curiosity regarding the Holy Cross. Finding herself incapable of passing the threshold of the church where the cross was being worshiped, she repented her sins and became a solitary contemplative in the desert beyond the Jordan River, where she eventually died at an advanced age, her clothes having rotted away with the passage of time.
An analysis of iconography based on eastern and western sources and traditions:
Two years before her death she had been discovered by a monk named Zosimus. In Sophronius her hair was short and white with age, a detail that Voragine omitted, and her skin burned black by the sun. Zosimus gave her his cloak and returned the following year to bring her communion. When he came back the year after that, he found her dead and buried her with the help of a lion.
Mary’s nakedness is an important part of the story, but exhibiting it in a sacred image was problematic. In the East, Zosimus’ cloak usually hangs from one shoulder and covers her from the waist down, with her upper body either turned modestly to one side, as at right, or simply presented as if it were the chest of a man. The hair is short and white, as in Sophronius, and the body is gaunt. Images in the West follow a different strategy, giving the saint copious dark hair that falls over her body, covering it to mid-thigh, as in the first picture at right, or even to the ankles.
Hans Memling’s portrait of 1480 draws on the eastern tradition for the cloak draped from the shoulder and abandons the long-hair strategy, leaving the saint’s upper body exposed to view. In Memling’s and almost all other portraits she has a fair young face, despite the statement in the legends that Zosimus found her blackened by the sun.
The Memling panel also exemplifies an attribute often seen in portraits of this saint: three loaves of bread held in one hand. In the Legend she took these loaves with her into the desert and they lasted seventeen years.
She is also sometimes shown with a book. No books are mentioned in the Golden Legend account or in the much longer tale in the South English Legendary, but according to Sophronius she had a knowledge of scripture that came directly from God. The books in the images thus refer to this knowledge, even if actual books were not its source.
The Russian icon above covers the whole story from when Zosimus is told to go into the desert until he and the lion bury the saint and her soul is carried to Heaven. Among images that focus on single events, the last communion and the burial are the more likely to be presented.