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Work Three Scenes in the Life of St. Mary the Egyptian

Department of Prints and Drawings: 19th century

Scènes de la vie de sainte Marie l'Egyptienne

Prints and Drawings
19th century

Author(s):
Prat Louis-Antoine

This drawing is a study for the decoration of one of the walls of a chapel in the church of St. Merry, Paris, painted by Chassériau in 1843. In the upper scene, St. Mary the Egyptian is receiving communion from St. Zosimas; the central scene shows her conversion before the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; the lower scene depicts the abbot Zosimas officiating at her burial, attended by a legendary lion and flanked by two angels.

A prostitute who became a saint

The story of St. Mary the Egyptian originated in Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend. She was a prostitute in ancient Alexandria who went to Jerusalem, where she was filled with grace and became a Christian. She then lived as a hermit in the desert, going without food for years, and met the abbot Zosimas, who gave her communion. After her death she was resuscitated and borne to heaven by angels. St. Zosimas told her story to the monks in his convent. The five episodes in her life are illustrated by Chassériau in the church of St. Merry.

A monumental religious decoration

When Chassériau, then aged 22, obtained the commission to decorate the chapel, he already had some experience as a religious painter (Christ on the Mount of Olives, church of Saint Jean d'Angély, 1840). Chassériau had entered Ingres's studio at the age of eleven and had traveled to Rome with his master in 1840; now he was ready to embark on his own career. The large ogival decoration of St. Merry enabled him to establish his reputation as one of the most poetic artists of his generation, and he gained the appreciation of contemporary critics, especially Théophile Gautier.

Archaism and modernism

Chassériau hesitated for a long time over the central scene, the saint's conversion. In the drawing, Mary the Egyptian is bowing before a statue of the Virgin and Child, at the door to the Holy Sepulchre; but in the mural, the saint is seen from the front, not in profile, leaning on the statue, which is in the exact center of the scene. This description accentuated the primitive, archaic, almost Byzantine aspect of the subject. The division of the decoration into registers separated by horizontal bands is also a Gothic legacy. However, the flowing, elegant treatment of the figures derives from modern Romanticism. The delicacy of the watercolor highlights heightens the pictorial aspect of this model for a monumental decoration measuring more than six meters in height.

Bibliography

L.-A. Prat, Musée du Louvre, Inventaire général des dessins. Ecole française : Dessins de Théodore Chassériau 1819-1856, Paris, 1988, tome I, n 147.
L.-A. Prat, Chassériau. Un autre romantisme, exp. Paris, Strasbourg, New-York, 2002-2003, n 71.

Technical description

  • Théodore Chassériau (Santo Domingo, 1819-Paris, 1856)

    Three Scenes in the Life of St. Mary the Egyptian

    1842

  • Graphite pencil and watercolor on paper

    H. 52.4 cm; W. 31.2 cm.; curved in the upper part

  • Baron Arthur Chassériau bequest, 1934

    4024372

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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