Necessary Imperfection: The Body of Sainte Marie l’Egyptienne
Panel 2: The Body Corruptible
Amy Lynn Conrad, Department of French and Italian (Indiana University)
“Far from tarnishing the final gleam, imperfection is a necessary stage” ~ Brigette Cazelles
Marie was a saint who began her life as a sinner. Saints who begin their lives in this manner have an unusual appeal to the reader; they are meant to be disapproving of the saint’s initial lifestyle only to champion their transformation later in the text. Marie must transform and transcend her body over many stages.
Where does her sin come from? Is it the conduct of her body or the soul being sinful in and of itself?
Marie was a beautiful girl who was, “Irritating to Jesus” and sexually promiscuous. She is denied access to a church and due to this rejection, she changes her life by fasting, praying and reviling her beauty.
It can be argued that Marie’s soul was sick, not her body, but to Marie, she viewed her body as being ‘stained and vile’ and the reason why she is destined for Hell. Her beauty was not the problem – it is her vanity. Her outside body did not match her inside soul. She used her beauty to proposition pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. Her beauty was very dangerous because she used it to seduce and cause men to sin.
When she tries to repent, she loses her beauty and starves herself. In the text, her skin turns black; this is interesting imagery – most saints are usually pale and white. What does this darkness of the skin mean? Is it an intermediary step toward sainthood? Is it as simple as her living outside and becoming dirty? After her death, her body does not decompose and has a pleasant, perfumed odour. Her body is once again as beautiful as her soul and this demonstrates divine intervention.
Marie’s body is physically rejected by the Church and the earth – the image of the sea suffering her sin and filth as she gets on the boat. The earth and the sea are anthropomorphised; the sea wishing to swallow her for her sin and the earth unwilling to support her weight. The Church repeatedly rejects her – her body is so sinful that it will not allow her into the Church. “The earth should collapse under me. My God, I see by these signs, That my body is not worthy…” When Marie is sinful, she is pulled downward, when she is good, she is pulled up toward heaven.
Mary denies herself comfort and malnourishes her body ( she only carries 3 loaves of bread for her entire journey and is often depicted this way in iconography). She doesn’t eat and is emaciated and non-sexual. Her gender is masculinised and even andrgynous – made more male to separate herself from sinful debauchery of her sex. Many female saints get rid of their feminine elements to masculinize themselves during their transformation into sainthood.
This is reminiscent of the tale of Saint Wilgefortis, who prayed to God to become ugly to avoid being married to a Pagan. God hears her prayer and gives her a beard. It turns out that the story isn’t true but it is a good example of women trying to masculinize themselves because they view their sex and beauty as a barrier to sainthood.
Many saintly women hated their beauty and tried to mutilate it to achieve saintliness. They subjugated their bodies to achieve perfection of the soul as they were viewed as the instruments and tools of the Devil.