Hairy Mary

Mary

Hairy Mary, by the Stuff of Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern Manuscripts Departmenet, The British Library.

Recently I was going through the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery with a friend, who asked how we know which saint is which. This is a fair question; medieval manuscripts rarely supply captions with their images. But luckily for future curators, medieval artists often identified saints and other figures by means of special attributes associated with them.

St Peter often holds a set of keys. St Catherine often rests on a wheel, since she was said to have broken the wheel on which she was supposed to be martyred. And if you see a woman completely covered in long hair and holding three loaves, chances are it’s a depiction of Mary of Egypt.

According to a saint’s life written by Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem, Mary of Egypt was born somewhere in Egypt in the middle of the 4th century. At the age of 12, she ran away from her parents to Alexandria, where she appears to have lived a Late Antique version of ‘Sex and the City’. Sophronius particularly condemns her enjoyment of her numerous amorous liaisons.

According to Sophronius, Mary eventually went to Jerusalem for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. She was not interested in the religious festival, but was rather looking for more sexual partners. However, she found she could not enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre until she repented of her lifestyle and promised to become a hermit. Stricken with remorse, she travelled into the wilderness, taking only three loaves of bread as sustenance.

While in the wilderness, Mary was spotted by St Zosimas, who tossed her his mantle and persuaded her to tell him her story. Zosimas went looking for her again a year later, but found her dead, and buried her with the aid of a helpful lion (as you do).

Mary became a popular figure in medieval art and literature. This is perhaps not surprising, given her memorable life, openness about her previous lifestyle, and her distinctive appearance. A whole series of bas-de-page scenes in the Smithfield Decretals were devoted to her, and she appears in countless devotional texts. Nevertheless, different artists interpreted her story slightly differently

Be warned, however: not all hairy ladies are Mary of Egypt. Mary Magdalen, who was also construed as an ex-prostitute in some medieval accounts of her life, was sometimes depicted with long hair, as seen in the Sforza Hours.

In some of the Alexander romances, Alexander is said to have come across women with hair down to their feet who lived in the forest—sort of female versions of wodewoses. Medieval artists—and modern curators—certainly loved ladies who knew how to let their hair down.

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PS (by Anna Melograni). I highly recommend on this subject: Alan Bennett, Going to the Pictures, London 2005 (Faber & Faber).

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