Texts dealing with the lives of female saints proliferate in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries throughout Europe. Although compared to other literatures the female saint is less common in Castilian letters, significantly the story of St. Mary of Egypt did circulate in Castilian in both poetic and prose versions.1 The first known version of the life of St. Mary of Egypt dates from the seventh century written in Greek and attributed to Sophronius, a Palestinian monk who served as the Patriarch of Jerusalem from 634 until his death in 658 (Walker vii).2 From that point stories of the repentant prostitute turned saint spread throughout Christendom and are usually divided into two groups: those that prominently feature the monk, variously known as Zosimas or Gozimas (in the Spanish poetic version) who Mary encounters in the desert and those in which Mary is the center of the narrative. The oldest tales written in Greek and Latin tend to feature the monk Zosimas [End Page 299] who believes he is living a saintly and humble existence until his meeting with Mary of Egypt. Upon knowing of Mary’s extreme ascetic existence, the monk realizes his own pride and rectifies his life (Snow 85). But, beginning in France in the twelfth century, the tale starts to feature Mary as the protagonist rather than Zosimas (Snow 84). The Spanish versions also feature Mary as the main figure of interest. This article will focus on the anonymous thirteenth-century Castilian poetic version of the life of St. Mary of Egypt, Vida de Santa María Egipçiaca, (hereafter, VSME). Besides the Castilian poetic version of Mary’s life, there also exists a Castilian prose version, Estoria de Santa María Egiçiaca, as well as Spanish translations of the Latin prose version of Paul the Deacon and that of Jacobus de Voragine in the Legenda aurea. The poetic VSME was composed in the first half of the thirteenth century and is a translation, with some significant modifications, of the French Vie de Sainte Marie l’Egyptienne.
When examining the lives of female saints Julian Weiss points out that these texts reflect not only changing patterns of lay piety but also an emphasis on the corporeality of the saint. He states that “women’s access to the divine was frequently mediated by or experienced through the body” (83). Weiss’s emphasis on a gendered approach to a study of female saint’s life is especially useful to my reading of the VSME. The physical transformation of Mary’s body–from voluptuous sinner to wizened ascetic–is essential to her story and is the crux upon which the didactic import of her life is based. The physical changes in Mary’s body denote spiritual changes in inverse proportion. It is also crucial to note that the physical and spiritual transformation of Mary requires a male witness, the monk who is destined to relate her life history. But Mary’s body is more than a mere site of change; it participates on a sensorial level in which she is affected by what she sees and others are affected by what they see in her. In other words, Mary gazes and is gazed upon. She is changed by what she sees while also becoming an agent of change, most personally in terms of her effect on the monk, Gozimas (as Zosimas is named in the VSME) and, by extension, on those to whom Gozimas relates the incredible story of her life and death.
The gaze and the gazer have been analyzed in a variety of critical approaches. [End Page 300] Jacques Lacan defines the act of gazing in the following manner: “Dans notre rapport aux choses, tel qu’il est constitué par la voie de la vision, et ordonné dans les figures de la représentation, quelque chose glisse, passe, se transmet, d’étage en étage, pour y être toujours à quelque degré éludé–c’est ça quie s’appelle le regard” (70). Lacan studies the gaze as both individual and collective experience within the symbolic order and reminds us that we not only gaze upon others but that we are simultaneously the object of others’ gaze (Burke 9–10).3 Furthermore we attach meaning to what we see, or in Lacanian, terms there is an “elision” between what one gazes upon and what this vision shows to the gazer.4 James Burke explains the medieval perception of the gaze as two-part. One involves the physical conveyance of images via the eyes and the understanding of the images as part of the functioning of the body. The other, superior way of seeing is with the soul. The soul was believed to be capable of analyzing the perceived image in terms of information that God had already inscribed on the soul of the gazer (Burke 12–13). As we shall see, in the VSME the concepts of the subject and object of the gaze as well as the ability for sensorial imagery to transmit both physical and spiritual information, and even to affect spiritual transformation, are critical keys to our understanding of this work. When Mary sees the angels that block her entrance to the cathedral in Jerusalem she perceives their presence on a physical level–she perceives them as real and present before her eyes–but she also “sees” their significance with her soul (vv. 440–55). She recognizes that their presence represents God’s displeasure with her way of life. When she realizes that the gaze of God has turned on her, at that moment, she comes to detest how she appears to Him. She physically perceives the angels through the sense of sight while her soul gazes on her true self/soul and realizes the enormity of her sins.5 In another section of the poem, Mary is the object of the gaze of the monk Gozimas. [End Page 301]
Gozimas witnesses Mary levitating above the ground (vv. 1105–15) as well as walking on the waters of the River Jordan (vv. 1240–55). He sees these phenomena as sensorial acts of sight but his spiritual gaze is directed to what such miraculous abilities denote about the nature of the mysterious woman he encounters in the desert. There are many other instances of gazing and being gazed upon throughout the VSME, as we shall see, but these are the most dramatic moments and become axes upon which the conversion of Mary from wanton sinner to saint and the dissemination of her life story hinge.
I will begin by briefly recapping Mary’s story as it appears in the VSME. The anonymous poet introduces the protagonist as “huna duenya muy loçana / et de su cuerpo muy loçana” (v. 20–21).6 From the outset, the poet invites us to focus on Mary’s robust good looks and specifically directs the reader’s gaze to her body. After quoting a few ideas from St. Augustine about sin, the poet describes the lascivious nature of Mary’s life since childhood.7 At the age of twelve, she tires of her parents’ objections to her lifestyle and decides to sail to Alexandria where she hopes to earn money as a prostitute. She is so successful in Alexandria that her presence there disrupts the peace since quarrels often break out among men vying for her company. A detailed description of Mary’s physical beauty, her elegant dress, and charming speech follows. One day in the harbor she spies a group of pilgrims en route to Jerusalem and, on a whim, she decides to join them. She offers her body as payment for her passage and the sailors eagerly accept. Once Mary is on board, no man on the ship can resist her and she has relations with all of them. When Mary arrives in Jerusalem, she is again very successful as a prostitute and men find her irresistible. On the day of the feast of the Ascension, she joins a group of pilgrims heading toward the church, but when she tries to enter, a group of armed angels blocks her entrance. She then realizes the depravity of her sinful past and repents, offering a long prayer before an image of the Virgin. She then enters the church without [End Page 302] hindrance and hears a heavenly voice telling her to go to the River Jordan, take communion in the church of St. John, and go into the desert to live. Mary wanders alone in the desert for some forty-seven years. During these years, her appearance is completely altered.8 Her skin becomes parched and black, her clothes disintegrate, and she eats only when an angel brings her food.9 After years of isolation, Mary encounters a monk, Gozimas, who is wandering the desert as part of his Lenten penance. Gozimas covers her with his own cloak since she is completely naked. He then watches in amazement as Mary levitates and hovers above the ground. Gozimas then hears her confession and departs. Gozimas and Mary next meet a year later on the banks of the Jordan. The monk sees Mary approaching him walking on the surface of the water. Mary tells him that he can find her the following year at the place in the desert where they had originally met. When Gozimas returns to that spot, he finds Mary dead and, with the help of a lion, he buries her. He returns to his monastery and publicizes the remarkable life of sin and repentance of the woman he had met in the desert.
Walker has argued that, even though the Spanish versions of Mary of Egypt’s life were most probably authored by clerics, their intended audience was not limited to the monastery. He argues, and I agree, that the introductory sermon, the exhortation with which the poem ends, and the explanation of moral lessons throughout the work point to its didactic intent for a diverse public (Walker xxxiv–xxxv). I have elsewhere (“Santa María”) posed questions about the longevity of Mary of Egypt’s story among ecclesiastical authors and what the retelling of the life of the prostitute/saint meant to [End Page 303] audiences of male (and probably female) celibate communities as well as the larger lay audience. While I do not want to repeat my arguments here, it is appropriate to point out that the author/translator of the VSME was a male cleric who produced an eroticized hagiographic tale full of adventure and sexual depravity. Mary’s story was popular within the cloistered walls but it also broke free from its author to enter the repertoire of the juglares whose purpose may have been more to entertain with the tale of sexual passion, violence, and lust than necessarily to edify their audience.10 Weiss quotes Simon Gaunt who, when speaking about the French versions of Mary of Egypt’s life, asserts that men in the audience enjoyed both the lengthy descriptions of Mary’s beautiful body and sexual exploits while at the same time they could morally delight in seeing her body deteriorate as just punishment for her sinful ways (Weiss 86). But Weiss sees men’s probable reaction to the Spanish VSME as a bit more complex since “any voyeuristic pleasure experienced by the male audience is inevitably tinged with guilt, which the Spanish adapter seems rather keen to pick up and develop” (87). This is an important point that I will return to as we develop the idea of the gaze in terms of its function both within the text and as it pertains to the work’s intended audiences.
In the VSME Mary’s body is center stage. From the opening lines, quoted earlier, Mary is defined by her “cuerpo muy loçana” (v. 21) and labeled a “fermosa pecador” (v. 24). Even before the poet’s digression on the need for penance, the reader’s/listener’s gaze is drawn to Mary’s body and its pleasures. Never a neutral construct throughout the work, the poet describes the young Mary’s relationship to her body as “plena de luxurja” (v. 87). To the sin of lust, the author adds that of possible incest when he states that Mary gave herself freely to all her relatives. And a few verses later, he reiterates the extent of her lustful nature: “ffue plena de tan gran luxirja” (v. 100). The first mention of others gazing on Mary and reacting to her is the case of her own family members. Even though we have already learned that she has slept with all her relatives (we assume the male relatives), here, in a [End Page 304] somewhat hypocritical way, the poet states that when her family sees how she is behaving they almost die, we assume, from shame. If we take the poet at his word, we cannot deny that at least some of these “ashamed” relatives have also enjoyed the pleasures of Mary’s body. As mentioned earlier, her parents’ reprimands cause a twelve-year-old Mary to desert her home and make her own way in the world.
Mary is next spied and evaluated by the prostitutes of Alexandria when she arrives to that city. The poet states:
Las meretriçes, quando la vieron, de buena mjente la Recibieron; a gran honor la Reçibieron por la beltat que en ella vieron.(vv. 151–54)
When the prostitutes gaze on Mary’s beauty, they welcome her to join their ranks. Rather than engendering envy or even fear of loss of customers to the comely new-comer, they are dazzled by her beauty and rush to welcome her. The next group to gaze on Mary’s body with awe and admiration are “los fijos delos burzesses” (v. 155). The phrase, “la vinjessen mirar” (v. 156), emphasizes that they are drawn to Mary by the sight of her body.11 In a few verses, the poet places Mary in the line of sight of both women (the prostitutes) and men (the sons of the townsfolk) and both groups react in a similar way as they are stunned by her beautiful body. The gaze here is, in a sense, bisexual, since Mary’s appearance produces pleasure for both sexes. Moreover this admiration and appreciation of Mary’s physical attributes does not diminish over time or from repeated contact with her. Each time that the young men see her–“cada dia la uan ha veyer” (v. 173)–they literally cannot take their eyes off her–“non se pueden della toller” (v. 174).
The next mention of the gaze occurs when Mary sees the quarrels and bloody fights that break out among the men rivaling for her attention. She sees the streets literally running with the blood of her admirers but, rather than being moved to pity, she is attracted to the most daring of her clients. She gives [End Page 305] herself to the winner of the quarrel and feels nothing for those he may have killed in the process. Here the third person narrator focuses on Mary and her reactions to the actions of the men around her. In a reprimanding tone, he tells us that she neither prays for those who have died on her account nor visits the wounded.
After presenting Mary as a pitiless reprobate, the Spanish poet pauses in the narration of events to present a detailed description of Mary’s body that has caused so many to sin and led to bloody conflict and even murder among her suitors. The author begins his description with an allusion to “seeing” Mary, stating that no one has ever seen one equal to her–“non viestes tal como esta” (v. 212). The use of the second-person singular here singles out each member of the public and invites him/her to a kind of private viewing of Mary’s remarkable body. The audience is privy to what Gaunt calls the stripper doing her act (cited in Weiss 86). The head-to-toe description that follows mimics that of the dama in courtly literature and points to a certain influence of this literary tradition on the hagiographic texts of this and other female saints (O’Connor 52).12 Mary’s ears are round and white, her eyes are dark, her forehead white and clear, her cheeks are rosy, her mouth is small, her neck long, her breasts like apples, and her body white as crystal (vv. 213–26).13 She is described as neither fat nor thin and neither too tall nor too short. The poet leaves off his description of the loveliness of Mary’s body only because he fears that he cannot do it justice–“non uos lo podrja contar” (v. 232). He opts instead to describe her fine garments and adornments of silver and gold; her tunics are of fine silk, her cape of ermine, and her shoes of finest Cordovan leather tied with silk laces. She is described as noble, a charming speaker, and so physically beautiful that any emperor would want her for his wife. In all, the physical description of Mary’s body, her dress, and [End Page 306] her talents occupies fifty-five verses of the poem. While, in one sense, this description follows a medieval model for female beauty, Sarah-Grace Heller argues for a more nuanced reading of such passages which were “loaded with coded significance” (937). For example the whiteness of Mary’s skin (like crystal) and the reflective nature of her gold and silver jewelry were common ways to connote luminosity and, by extension, beauty or glamour (Heller 937). Heller further contends that brightness in attire and appearance was associated with “the social clout of fashion and personal distinction. In this way the personal use of light is shown as a means to gain status, attract admiration, and demonstrate social influence” (940). The Castilian poet is following a literary model to describe Mary and the careful attention to details such as the luminosity of her skin and brightness of her gold, silver, and silk personal adornments heighten his picture of her as desirable, powerful, and influential. The audience would “see” in this picture of Mary codes for the power she held over those who gazed on her while, at the same time, experiencing themselves those same coded messages. The impact of Mary’s changed appearance after her exile to the desert, and especially the blackness of her skin, would likewise be decoded as complete obliteration of the luminous beauty painted in this first part of the poem.
When Mary encounters a group of pilgrims in port who are en route to Jerusalem, she sees a chance for new adventures and boldly declares to the sailors that she intends to pay for her passage on the boat with her body–“he buen cuerpo; / este les dare a gran baldon” (vv. 310–11). As if they had not already noticed, she directs their gaze to her body which they readily accept as more than ample payment for the voyage. She sleeps with all on board and none of the men, even the most devout of the pilgrims, can resist her once they lay eyes on her. For example, when she unbinds her long tresses, the poet remarks that “nunqua vio omne mas bellos” (v. 372). The effect of gazing on a beautiful woman was well documented among medieval doctors. The sight of such a woman was believed to stimulate male sexual appetite which, in their concept of physiology, resided in the liver. An increase in libido caused the heart to beat more rapidly and to transport air to the body cavity and eventually to the masculine organ (Solomon 427). Thus the men’s [End Page 307] arousal and the frenzied sexual activity aboard the boat is a direct result of the men gazing upon Mary. The tossing of the rolling seas is also an erotic metaphor for, or a reflection of, the sexual act in which Mary and all the men are engaging even as the ship is threatened by stormy seas and thrown about wildly (Solomon 427).
After Mary establishes herself in Jerusalem it is not surprising that all the men she encounters fall prisoner, literally, to her beauty. But one of the key moments alluded to earlier is about to occur and this time, rather than being the object of the gaze, Mary will witness a vision that will change the course of her life. On the feast of the Ascension, Mary, out of pure curiosity rather than any hint of religious devotion, decides to join a group of pilgrims in a procession. When they arrive at the cathedral she is unable to enter. She sees a group of men that appear to her to be “caualleros” (v. 446) holding aloft their swords and daring her to try to pass through the doorway. It is at this moment, when she sees the armed angels that bar her entrance to the church, that Mary realizes the enormity of her sins. She perceives their presence not merely through the sensorial experience of sight but also with the eyes of her soul. She begins to weep and lash out at some of her most desirable attributes, especially her hair and her breasts — “d’amas manos tira a sus cabellos, / grandes ferjdas dio a sus pechos” (vv. 458–59). When she looks up she is gazing upon a beautiful image of the Virgin; she kneels before the image and “con uerguença la cato” (v. 481).14 After praying and sincerely repenting before the Virgin, the armed host that had previously barred her entrance to the church disappears from sight and she enters the church where she fervently prays. She then hears a heavenly voice that tells her to go to the River Jordan, take communion in the monastery of St. John, and then go into the desert where she will live in penance for the rest of her days. Patricia Grieve reminds us that this kind of dramatic conversion is much more common in the lives of male saints than of female saints, [End Page 308] since the latter are usually portrayed as devout from childhood (143). The anomaly of Mary’s sensational conversion experience is, according to Grieve, indicative of the poem’s inverted gender roles in which Mary undergoes an extraordinary spiritual change whereas the male monk, Gozimas, represents the exemplary life of purity (143).
The next “picture” the poet gives of Mary is a detailed description of her physical deterioration after forty-seven long years exposed to the rigors of the heat and cold of the desert. As mentioned at the outset, the contrast between the description of a voluptuous Mary as a wanton prostitute and her withered appearance as a saint now cleansed of her sins has been commented on frequently by critics.15 Her formerly white skin is blackened, her golden locks are now white and dirty, her ears are black, her eyes no longer shine and are sunken in, her face is black and wrinkled, and her chin is like a piece of coal. This utter lack of luminosity in Mary’s physical features would have struck the poem’s audience as a deliberate attempt to destroy utterly the previous description of her. Her breasts are dried up to the point that they are unrecognizable as breasts, her dried fingers are like spits for meat, her fingernails and teeth are ragged, her belly is shriveled, and her feet burnt. This counter-description of the formerly beautiful Mary is given in forty verses, only a few less than the number of verses dedicated to her initial physical description. Solomon observes that just as the erotic images of the beautiful Mary in the first part of the poem would have stimulated male sexual desire, these abhorrent images of Mary after her years of penance in the desert serve to annul any lingering desires. He concludes that “el poema produce en el lector una especie de catarsis sexual en cuanto que el organismo masculino corrompido por las imágenes de la María pecadora recobra su equilibrio a través de las imágenes curativas de la María arrepentida” (437). Weiss sees the contrasting portraits of Mary somewhat differently and concludes that the audience, on one level, would have enjoyed this picture of the hideous consequences of uncontrolled female libido. He states that “Mary’s body, even after it has become shriveled, sunburnt, and emaciated, remains an object of a highly ambivalent male awe and desire” (87). [End Page 309]
Mary, who for so long had been the object of the desirous, male gaze, has no human contact while in the desert and, when she finally comes into contact with a man, the monk Gozimas, the object of the male gaze has been transformed completely from beautiful to grotesque body. Gozimas is depicted as an exemplary monk and, although all allures and possible temptations represented by Mary’s body have been annihilated by her long arduous sojourn in the desert, his reaction to her when he realizes that she is a woman, naked and alone, is protective rather than predatory. When Gozimas is wandering in the desert as part of his Lenten practice, he spies at midday what he first believes at first to be a shadow or a ghost but he is unsure whether it is male or female — “vio la ssombra vera mjente, / sombra vio que era / de omne ho de ffembra” (vv. 931–33). His first reaction to the sight of another being is fear since he/she appears to him to be an “antojança” (v. 942) or apparition. He finally makes out that this apparition is, in fact, a woman who is totally naked since Mary’s garments had long ago deteriorated completely from exposure to the extremes of the desert climate. Her only covering is her long, white hair and when the wind blows, Gozimas clearly sees her skin which he describes as “quemada” (v. 958). The monk pursues Mary because he believes that she is favored by God and he wants to talk to her, but Mary flees from him. When he finally draws near enough to call out to her in the name of God she stops and praises God for having once again heard His name spoken aloud after her years of solitude. But she is hesitant to turn around since she is aware of her nakedness. Miraculously Mary knows Gozimas’s name and when she asks for a cloth to cover herself, the monk immediately obliges. Now covered, Mary is happy to converse with the monk. This desire to hide her body from the male gaze is yet another signal of her radical transformation from the prostitute who flaunted her body at every opportunity in order to attract the stares of men to a modest woman who is ashamed of her nakedness. The petition for clothing to hide one’s nakedness is also reminiscent of Adam and Eve’s perceived need for covering their bodies when they are confronted by God with the willful sin they had committed. In like manner, Mary now confronts Gozimas and she experiences shame in the presence of the one who will become privy to her sinful past. Weiss speaks of the revealing and subsequent covering of [End Page 310] Mary’s naked body in this scene as paradoxical. He states that “the haggard, naked body symbolizes a life of sin and redemption, a truth that needs to be unveiled. Yet Mary’s shameful life can be revealed to the monk only when the most shameful parts of her body are clothed” (88–89).
Gozimas initially throws himself at Mary’s feet and asks her to bless him because he realizes that her life of extreme asceticism makes her his spiritual superior. At this gesture, Mary throws herself at Gozimas’s feet and the two weep at the intensity of emotions their meeting has aroused. The fact that a male cleric asks the former prostitute to bestow a blessing on him is worthy of comment on several levels. Ernesto Delgado has spoken of the destabilizing nature of female asceticism since a woman ascetic undermined the traditional roles for women, that is, matrimony and procreation (283). The female ascetic or hermit was viewed with wariness by the Church since it was believed that women were associated with carnality and men with spirituality. Since the goal of the female ascetic was to obtain spiritual purity she was considered suspect since such an ambition was beyond woman’s natural scope. Isidore of Seville, for example, upheld the belief in male dominance over women precisely because women were spiritually inferior creatures to men (Delgado 283). Thus, the scene of a male cleric considering a woman (and lest we forget, a former prostitute) his spiritual superior and humbling himself before her would have been unsettling to the poem’s audience. Weiss sees this scene as a kind of competition “between the authority of the priestly caste, who administer the Eucharist and other sacraments, and the authority of charismatic women who enjoy the unmediated blessing of God” (90). We should keep in mind that, as part of his Lenten stay in the desert, Gozimas had hoped to come upon an “ermjtanya” (v. 919) with whom he could talk to about God. This desire is at variance with the Spanish poet’s French model which only states that Gozimas hoped to encounter a hermit without reference to his/her sex (Weiss 89).16 Gozimas recognizes that by living as a desert ascetic, enduring the harshest of conditions and [End Page 311] renouncing all creature comforts, Mary has eclipsed the limits of her sex to such an extent that he asks her for a blessing, a prerogative that under normal circumstances was only enjoyed by a priest (Delgado 287). She has become in this sense a “virile woman” as described by Delgado: “Esta suerte de la transformación de la mujer en un ser viril (‘virilización’) se llevaba a cabo tanto en el ámbito conceptual como en el físico, ya que una prolongada estadía en las drásticas condiciones del desierto, efectivamente, eliminaba los rasgos externos que culturalmente la habían caracterizado” (Delgado 287). As an asexual being, Mary is able to transcend her existence as female and be recognized as superior in humility and, indeed, sanctity to the God-fearing monk who meets her in the desert. She, at last, concedes to give Gozimas a blessing, asking God to pardon the sins of them both and bring down His grace upon them. In analyzing the scene of the blessing, Grieve states that it serves “to transcend the issues of male and female, equalizing the two protagonists, and placing their human relationship on a plane in which female sexuality has absolutely no role” (146).
Gozimas, in a sense, gazes beyond Mary’s physical appearance to see the saint residing in her withered body. His assessment of her spirituality is confirmed when he next witnesses her levitating, in ecstasy, above the ground. This miraculous concession from God seems reminiscent of the moment when Mary first became aware of her sinful life and repented. The confrontation with the Heavenly hosts in Jerusalem had occurred on the feast of the Ascension when Christ’s resurrected body rose to Heaven. Now, as a thoroughly redeemed creature and model of sanctity, God grants Mary her own moment of ascension. Upon witnessing Mary floating in the air Gozimas is afraid and begins to move away but Mary speaks to him saying that God has the power to do anything for His faithful and so he should not be surprised at her miraculous ability. At this unwavering and complete declaration of faith, Gozimas is again brought to his knees before Mary. He then asks her to tell him about her life by way of confession. She agrees precisely because Gozimas has seen her naked body—“Pues que tu viste mj carne desnuda, / mj vida non te çelare nulla” (v. 1149–50)—and she feels no need to keep any secrets from him. Once she has repeated her history, [End Page 312] without leaving out any details, Mary feels greatly ashamed and she again throws herself at the monk’s feet and asks for the Church’s pardon.
Gozimas wants to stay with Mary in the desert and learn from her. Grieve speaks of Mary and Gozimas’s relationship as a kind of prelapsarian marriage in which the two share “spiritual goals and shared human penance and self-abnegation in pursuit of those goals” (146). Their relationship is not based on carnal distinction between man and woman but rather on a kind of companionship in which they view each other as equals in their desire to become closer to God. But despite Gozimas’s desire to spend more time in Mary’s company, she insists that he return to his monastery but tells him that he will see her again when he makes his next sojourn into the desert. On that occasion she asks him to bring her the bread and wine of communion. In terms of this central sacrament of the Catholic faith, there is no questioning of gender roles here and Mary expresses a keen desire to have the monk give her communion since she had greatly missed it during her years of solitude.17
On the following Easter, Gozimas goes to the banks of the River Jordan where Mary had asked him to bring her communion. At first he does not see her anywhere and prays to God to let him see Mary again–“dexame veyer lo que deseyo” (v. 1243). When he espies her across the river, he calls out to her and she approaches, walking on the surface of the river. This act is, of course, reminiscent of Christ’s walking on the surface of the Sea of Galilee as Maier (430) and Cárdenas (417) have observed. The association of holiness with the River Jordan, especially the baptism of Christ by John in the Jordan, is not lost on Gozimas who has come to see Mary as a model of perfected devotion.18 Gozimas is witness to this, the second, manifestation [End Page 313] of Mary’s miraculous abilities but he does not tell his fellow monks about this remarkable woman because she has sworn him to secrecy about his encounters with her until after her death. After receiving the bread and wine of communion, Mary prays that God now receive her into heaven, reminding Him of the forty-seven years that she has faithfully served Him. She then departs telling Gozimas that he will find her the next year when he leaves the monastery for Lent in the same place where they had their original encounter.
Alone again, Mary experiences a vision of celestial beings. In this instance they are not the threatening horde that had barred her entrance to the Church in Jerusalem many years ago, but rather “buenos mandaderos” (v. 1324) who have come to take her to heaven. She lies down, wraps herself in her long hair, crosses her arms over her chest, and closes her eyes and mouth. Especially important for this reading of the poem is Mary closing her eyes; not only is she preparing for death but she is consciously shutting off her gaze of the world. The inner eye of her soul now turns its attention and expectations on the sight of God and the heavenly kingdom. Almost immediately Mary’s soul departs her body and is received by the angels.
When Gozimas sets out to find Mary during the following Lent he suspects that she may now be dead. As he approaches the spot where he is to meet Mary, his gaze meets a bright light emanating from her lifeless body:
Torno los ojos a diestra parte, houo a ojo huna clarjdat; a aquella lumbre sse allego, vio el cuerpo, mucho se pago.(vv. 1358–61)
The redeemed Mary is once again associated with light and luminosity as her body exudes an aura of sanctity that is physically visible to Gozimas. According to Maier, “The clarity and light which surround the body signal the healing which her penitential life had brought to her spirit” (431). The initial fear, and perhaps disgust, that the monk had experienced when he first saw Mary is replaced by a desire to see her again, even in death. In a parallel to their first encounter, Gozimas covers Mary’s body with a cloth just as he had given her a piece of cloth to hide her nakedness when they [End Page 314] first met. He sees an inscription written in the sand above Mary’s head and, from the clarity and preciseness of the letters, he realizes that it is a message from heaven. This is the third miraculous event that Gozimas has seen in his encounters with Mary. God has granted him this privilege so that he can serve as a true eye-witness to Mary’s holiness. He has seen and, therefore, he has believed and he will pass this belief on to others.
The heavenly inscription instructs Gozimas to bury Mary’s body and to pray for her soul. He is happy for this opportunity to be of service to the woman he had so admired but he has no tools with him to dig a grave. As a remedy for this situation, God makes Gozimas the recipient of another miraculous event to which he can bear testimony. A lion emerges from the wilderness, although no mention has been made throughout the poem of any animals inhabiting the inhospitable desert where Mary has been living.19 The lion is completely tame and makes motions indicating that he has come to help Gozimas with the task of burying Mary.20 Onnaca Heron calls the lion “a kind of deus ex machina” (35) sent by God so that Gozimas can complete this last act of reverence for the woman who had become his spiritual compass. Also, the tame lion as a miraculous sign of God’s grace would have been familiar to all readers/listeners of the VSME from the story of Daniel, who was thrown into the lion’s den because of his devoutness to God in spite of Darius’s decree that no one should offer prayers except to Darius himself. Because of Daniel’s prayers, God closes the mouth of the lion and he does no harm to Daniel. In a similar way, this lion is tamed in response to Mary’s steadfast devotion to a life of prayer and penance (see Daniel 6). The inclusion of a lion at this point in the text would also be reminiscent of characteristics, [End Page 315] both physical and spiritual, of the lion from the bestiary tradition. Bestiaries were well-known and circulated in Spain at the time of the composition of the VSME. Among the characteristics of the lion cited in the bestiaries are its ability to sleep with its eyes open and that it is born dead but, after three days, the father of the lion cub growls in its ear and it is resuscitated. The Christian parallels are obvious and were popular material in sermons and other didactic works. Maintaining one’s eyes open means to be ever aware of God’s presence and on constant guard for the Devil and temptation. The lion cub being born dead and resuscitated by its father on the third day alludes to Christ death and subsequent Resurrection when God the Father breathed life back into His Son. The death and rebirth was also likened to the fact that we are born in sin, that is, dead spiritually, until we receive the saving sacrament of baptism (Deyermond 44–46). In the VSME Mary had been spiritually dead until she is resurrected to the status of saint through her extreme acts of penance. Her eyes were opened and she has kept them fixed on God and her own repentance for decades. Given that these attributes were associated with the lion, it therefore seems totally appropriate that a lion should participate in Mary’s burial but, understandably, the cooperation of the tame beast in the burial is perceived by Gozimas as miraculous. When he returns to his monastery, Gozimas shares Mary’s story with his fellow monks, his eye-opening (as well as soul-opening) encounters with her in the desert, her miraculous abilities to levitate and walk on water, and finally the miraculous aid of the lion in burying her body. The monks cry over the loss of the saintly woman and vow to lead holier lives because of her ascetic example.
In conclusion, the VSME deals, to a large extent, with sight, both in a sensorial sense and a spiritual one. In the first part of the poem Mary’s voluptuous body inspires lust in all who gaze upon her. In the second part, her beauty has been destroyed and the only person who sees her withered body is the holy monk, Gozimas. From the object of the gaze of many, Mary in the desert is now seen by only one man and he views her as a model for penance and salvation. Mary moved from the object of the gaze to the subject when she experiences the vision of the heavenly hosts that prevent her entering [End Page 316] the church in Jerusalem. What her eyes behold affects her soul, and she sees, both in a physical and spiritual sense, the true nature of her sinful life. Her solitary life in the desert is an act of penance that removes her from any human contact until Gozimas appears. The contrasting descriptions of Mary’s beautiful body when she was living as a harlot and her haggard appearance as a saintly penitent are offered to the public as mirror images of lust and repentance. To beautify her soul, Mary’s appearance must be altered to such an extent that she can never again be the object of the desirous, male (or female) gaze. Her miraculous abilities to levitate and walk on water are outward signs that Gozimas sees and, by witnessing these phenomena, he comes to know that he is in the presence of a saint. As a saint, Mary’s death is marked, too, by signs from God–the light emanating from her body, the inscription in the sand, and the lion that helps to dig her grave. These signs are seen by Gozimas and impress upon him that he has known a saintly woman. Mary’s story is so remarkable and the change she has undergone so profound that it demands the participation of the monk as an eye-witness who will bear testimony to Mary’s life story. The audience, in turn, is asked to see in this life an exemplary lesson of God’s power to transform and forgive even the worst of sinners. [End Page 317]
1. Only Sts. Mary of Egypt and Oria are represented in early Castilian verse hagiography.
2. Mary of Egypt supposedly lived in the fifth century but the earliest version of her story is from the seventh.
3. Lacan speaks of the pre-existence of the gaze in which “je ne vois que d’un point, mais dans mon existence je suis regardé de partout” (69).
4. “dans l’état dit de veille il y a élision du regard, élision de ceci que, non seulement ça regarde, mais ça montre” (72). Emphasis in the original.
6. All quotes are from Andrés Castellanos’s edition of the VSME.
7. Specifically the idea that sin is not an invention of heaven, but rather the state of fallen mankind. Also, that any sin can be forgiven if one sincerely repents and does penance.
8. A number of critics have commented on the stark contrasts between the descriptions of the voluptuous body of Mary, the prostitute, and the repugnant sight of her after years spent in the desert. They contrast her outer beauty which harbors a sinful soul when she is living a wanton life with her horrible physical appearance and beautiful soul when she lives as an anchorite. See, as examples, studies by Cortina, Maier, Cárdenas, Scarborough (“Vida”), Solomon, and Delgado.
9. Mary originally took two-and-a-half loaves of bread into the desert that sustained her for many years, after which, she was fed on occasions by angels. Sargent (18) points out that the motif of the miraculous feeding of a hermit saint was also a feature of the Life of Peter the Hermit and is probably based on models from scripture, such as ravens bringing food to the Elijah (1 Kings 17).
11. The text clearly states that the men pursue Mary to see and possess her body: “Todos la van corteyar / por el su cuerpo acabar” (vv. 159–60).
12. But Michael Solomon reminds us that the long description of Mary’s erotic exploits breaks with the more common hagiographic pattern in which the saint is portrayed as an exemplary individual even in his (or, less commonly, her) childhood and youth (425).
13. Although a more common adjective is “shining” to describe the dama’s eyes, Franchini reminds us that the lady with dark eyes is quite common in the literary works of medieval Spain and is part of the descriptio puellae in Razón de amor con los denuestos del agua y el vino, Mocedades de Rodrigo, and the lyric of Ibn Quzmān (314–15).
14. Sargent notes that the Virgin Mary does not play a significant role in the lives of other female penitents. She sees the inclusion of the Virgin here as a reflection of the early devotion to the Holy Mother in the East where the first versions of the life of St. Mary of Egypt appeared and its increasing importance in western Christendom, especially in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (31–32).
16. Maier, evaluating the Castilian prose Estoria, asserts that Zosimas’s “willingness to seek out the God in some other being speaks of a humility which exceeds that of his brothers, while also indicating a greater potential for his knowledge and acceptance of the Source which he seeks” (429).
17. Delgado sees in Mary’s request for communion a clue to the continued popularity of Mary’s story among clerics from its first inceptions: “El papel de la eucaristía será crucial en la recepción de esta leyenda en los siglos posteriores y reforzará la idea conciliatoria—muy importante en el desarrollo del nuevo eremitismo de los siglos XII y XIII—en la que el mundo del eremita asceta no puede prescindir de las jerarquías eclesiásticas, le permite a María el paso final obligado para reconciliarse con la Iglesia” (294).
18. Maier even refers to Mary as vehicle for Gozimas’s salvation in the sense that he “will be led back to the fullness from whence he and all mankind came” (430). Grieve develops this idea more fully in her article.
19. Sargent observes that the lion may have been a feature of the story of Mary of Egypt even before the Greek version of her life. In the Life of St. Marius, written before 596, Dynamius Patricius claims that lions dug the graves of Peter the Hermit and Mary of Egypt (Sargent 20).
20. Deyermond notes that the verses about the lion and his help in burying Mary in the VSME are greatly abbreviated from the number of verses dedicated to the episode in the French Vie de Sainte Marie l’Égyptienne—33 and 81 verses respectively. The Castilian prose version of Mary’s life derived from the Vita Sanctae Mariae Aegyptiacae of Paulus Diaconus stresses Zozimas’s weakness and discouragement when confronted with the task of burying Mary. He despairs at not being able to dig in the hard, packed earth of the desert and initially reacts with fear when the lion appears (49–50).