Father David of Xenophontos, Saints Zosimos and Mary of Egypt


Father David of Xenophontos, Saints Zosimos brings communion to Saint Mary of Egypt, egg tempera and gold leaf on panel, early 21st century

Father David of Xenophontos, Saint Zosimos brings communion to Saint Mary of Egypt

This icon shows a meeting in the Jordanian desert between Saint Zosimas and Saint Mary of Egypt. The two are among the most important ascetic models venerated on Mount Athos. Zosimas (d. 546), a monk from Palestine, undertook a journey to the hermits that dwell in the desert. There he encounters a naked ascetic woman, Mary. She has been wandering in the desert for the past 47 years, in repentance for her former life as a prostitute. He gave her a cloak, which she is shown wearing in the image. According to Sophronios’ vita, he follows her wishes to bring her communion on the following Holy Thursday, thus he is shown in the icon holding a chalice and a spoon.1 She steps over a crevice towards him, gesturing, her right palm over her heart. A closely related composition is found on a 17th-century icon in the Pantokrator Monastery on Mount Athos.2

Landscape plays a symbolic role in the composition of the icon; it is the setting for the narrative and allusion to the Holy Mountain itself. The crack in the dry desert floor leads the eye back, toward the mountainous landscape in the background. A cave is featured prominently in the center between the two saints. The focus on landscape in this icon perhaps alludes to the role of sacred topography in the religious life and practices at Mount Athos. The desert itself is also a metaphor for the ascetic life, the mountain as place of theophany and revelation.

The cave also has significance – in the bible, it is a place where man convenes with God. It is the setting of theophany, where Moses communicates with God through the burning bush.3 It signifies the dwelling place of a saint and points to the lifestyles of the hermits in the desert, those that Zosimas was seeking. The cave is also an entry point into the ascetic lifestyle. Saint Athanasius, the founding father of the Great Lavra and thus the coenobitic communal lifestyle on Athos, first lived in a cave on Athos, before being called upon by Emperor Nikephoros to found the Great Lavra. Saint Athanasius modeled himself after the desert fathers from Palestine, like Saint Anthony, who dwelt in a cave in the desert.4

LauraLee Brott


Brown, Peter. “The Desert Fathers: Anthony to John Climacus.” The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, 213-240.

Douay-Reims Bible.  http://drbo.org/x/d?b=drb&bk=2&ch=3&l=6#x.

Papadopoulos, Stelios, and Kapioldassi-Soteropoulou, Chrysoula, eds., Icons of the Holy Monastery of Pantokrator (Mount Athos: Holy Monastery of Pantokrator, 1998), 240-46.


1Monachos, “Sophronios of Jerusalem, Life of St Mary of Egypt.” Accessed December 16, 2016. http://www.monachos.net/content/patristics/patristictexts/182-life-of-mary.
2See Papadopoulos and Kapioldassi-Soteropoulou, Icons of the Holy Monastery of Pantokrator, 240-46.
3Douay-Reims Bible. “Exodus, Chapter 3: God appeareth to Moses in a bush, and sendeth him to deliver Israel,” Accessed December 16, 2016, http://drbo.org/x/d?b=drb&bk=2&ch=3&l=6#x.
4Brown, “The Desert Fathers: Anthony to John Climacus.” The Body and Society, 214.

Father David of Xenophontos, Saints Zosimos and Mary of Egypt