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Seeing and Believing: The Gaze in the Vida de Santa María Egipçiaca
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Seeing and Believing:
The Gaze in the Vida de Santa María Egipçiaca

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...