A frequent secondary figure in icons, as well as having her own icons, is Mariya Egipetskaya — Mary of Egypt.
She is usually easily recognized from her ascetic appearance. She is often depicted partly or completely nude, though any trace of sensuality is absent due to abstraction of the form, as is common in traditional icons.
Here is the central portion of an icon of Mary of Egypt:
The image typifies the tendency of later Old Believer images to maintain stylization of the human form while moving toward more realism in background landscapes, an influence from western European painting. We can tell this is an Old Believer image by looking at the position of the fingers of Mary’s right hand. This blessing position was a mark of “Old Ritualist” belief in contrast to the innovations of the State Church. People tend to forget that the majority of icons one thinks of as “typically Russian” from the late 17th through early 20th centuries were actually painted by Old Believers, generally considered heretical by the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church, which favored increasing realism during that period.
But back to Mary. Who exactly was she? Her dates vary from the 4th to the 6th century. Her story was supposedly not written down until the first half of the 7th century. Suffice it to say that there is much room for historical doubt.
The traditional hagiographical story of her life relates that an elder named Zosima, as the result of advice from an angel, went first to a monastery near the Jordan River, then out into the desert beyond. There, after 20 days of wandering and praying, he saw a strange form off in the distance, with sun-darkened skin and very white hair. He walked to meet the person, but whoever it was ran away from him. Zosima chased after the stranger, and when he got close enough to be heard, he shouted out to it to stop in the name of God.
The figure paused and replied that she (it was a woman) could not turn to face him because she was naked. She asked to borrow his cloak so that she might come to him and receive his blessing. He threw her his cloak and turned away as she put it on to partly cover herself, and then the two came together and talked.
First there was a bit of “no, you go first” over who was to bless whom. Then Zosima asked Mary to pray, and closed his eyes as she did so. The prayer seemed to go on and on, and Zosima, wondering when it was going to end, opened his eyes and looked at Mary, and was astonished to see that she was floating in the air some two feet off the ground. He thought she might, after all, be some kind of spirit, but Mary finished her prayer and assured him she was just a “sinful woman.”
Zosima asked her to tell who she was and why she was there.
She did not tell him her name, but said she was born in Egypt. When young and attractive, she had gone to the great city of Alexandria, and there she led a life of unrestrained sensuality. She was rather a nymphomaniac, and had sex with countless men, not for money, but just because of the urge to do it.
One summer day she saw a large crowd of people going to the sea. She asked what was happening, and found they were taking a ship to Jerusalem to be present at the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Mary was suddenly seized with a desire to go, and though she had no money, she planned to pay her passage by sex. Mary spent the journey having sex with men aboard ship, and when she got to Jerusalem she continued, with as many men as she could get.
She was still chasing after young men in Jerusalem when she saw a crowd of people on their way to the church for the Festival of the Exaltation. She followed them, and when they went into the church she tried to follow, but for some reason found she could not enter. She could only get as far as the porch. No matter how she tried, something would not let her through the church doorway.
It finally dawned on Mary that she was not being allowed to enter the church and see the ritual of the Elevation of the Cross because of her sensuous lifestyle. She was very repentant, and, seeing an icon of Mary, mother of Jesus, in the porch, she prayed to her in tears, saying she was sorry for her sensual habits, and that if she were allowed to go in and see the true cross, she would give up her life of sex.
As these stories go, when she tried again to enter the church after her prayer, she found it possible. She went in and saw the cross and the ceremony, and when she came out again, she went to the icon of Mary in the porch of the church, the place where she had made her vow. Then, while praying before it she heard a voice. It said,
“Go beyond the Jordan and you will find glorious rest.”
A stranger gave her three coins, and with them she bought three loaves of bread. Then Mary set off, and when she came to the Jordan River she took a boat across and went into the desert. There she lived a life of extreme asceticism for some 17 years, fighting her “worldly” desires with prayer and lack of food. Her clothes wore out, so she went naked, burned by the sun and chilled by the cold. Eventually, she at last seemed so see a light that filled her with peace.
Zosima asked her about her reading of holy books, and she replied she had none, that she did not learn from books or from men; in fact she had seen no one at all since she came to the desert. She said what she knew came from the “Word of God, which is alive and active.”
Zosima was of course terribly impressed by all of this. Mary seemed to even know the rules of the Monastery near the Jordan from which Zosima had come into the desert, and asked him to bring her some of the monastery Eucharistic bread and wine a year from then, but not to tell anyone about her during that time. Then she walked off into the desert again.
A year later Zosima did as she had asked. He took some of the Eucharistic bread and wine, as well as some other food, and went alone to the Jordan river to wait for her arrival. While he waited, he wondered how she would get to him, because there seemed to be no boat anywhere in sight.
It was a moonlit night, and eventually he saw Mary appear on the opposite bank. She made the sign of the cross, then stepped onto the river and walked across, her feet treading the surface as though it were solid.
Zosima, filled with reverence, gave Mary the Eucharist, but of the other food she took only three grains. Then she asked him to come again the same time the following year and said he would see her again. Then she once more made the sign of the cross, walked across the water back to the opposite side of the river, and vanished into the desert.
The next year, when he returned to the desert to look for her, he saw a body lying on the opposite bank. It was Mary. He wept and said the appropriate prayers, and found she had left a note written in the soil for him, telling him her name was Mary, and that she had died after receiving the Eucharist the previous year. So her body had not only been preserved for a year, but it had been transported (miraculously, we are to suppose) to where it was found by Zosima. The note asked that he bury her body. He was not sure how to go about it, being old and without any tools. He found a piece of wood and tried to scrape into the ground, but it was hard and dry. He kept at it, scratching away and sweating, but with little result. Then he raised his eyes, and saw a lion was standing by Mary’s body, licking her feet.
At first Zosima was very afraid, but the lion made no sign of being anything but friendly, and walked over to him. Zosima spoke to the lion, explaining that he was asked to bury the body but had great difficulty in doing so; he requested that the lion use his claws to dig a grave. The lion was amenable, and with his great paws scraped away enough soil to make a grave. Mary was laid in it with the cloak Zosima had given placed over her, then the body was covered up with earth. The lion wandered off back into the desert.
Zosima returned to the monastery and told the whole story of Mary, her life, miracles, and death. The monks passed the tale on orally, until eventually, it is said, a certain Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote it down.
Such stories as this were the novels of pre-modern Eastern Orthodox (though of course large numbers could not read at all). These tales of saints had sex, danger, adventure (if heavily on the ascetic side), and wonders. So it is not surprising that a story like that of Mary of Egypt made a big impression, causing her to be painted in many icons.
In the central image above, we see Mary and Zosima conversing together in the background, as well as Mary walking across the Jordan and the lion licking Mary’s feet and digging her grave.
If we look at the whole icon of which this is a part, we see many more scenes of her life in the cells of the outer borders, from her seeing the crowds going to the ship at Alexandria to her inability to enter the church in Jerusalem, and on through the whole tale of her discovery by Zosima and their meeting. Icons such as this one “with the life,” that is with all the scenes illustrating the story, were the equivalent in those days of our modern “graphic novels,” what used to be called comic books.
Here is the cell showing Zosima wandering in the desert and seeing Mary for the first time. Do not be surprised that the desert does not look much like a desert. Russian icon painters only knew a desert as a “deserted” place, a wilderness, and so there are often lots of trees and shrubs in icon desert scenes.
It is common practice in icons to show the same person more than once in a scene to indicate continuing, narrative action. So at right we see Zosima casually walking along, and at at left we see him discovering Mary off in the distance (which does not look so distant here).