Hypatia of Alexandria is in the mood in Spain because of the movie “Agora” by Alejandro Amenabar. So, I want to write about the artistic representations of this kind of heroine of the Hellenistic period. She was one of the few women in Antiquity who studies Mathemtics, Physics and Astronomy and died stoned for not practising any kind of Religion, maybe she was one of the first Atheist of our Age.

I want to start reflecting about how was her face. This drives us to one of my favourite themes of Egyptian Arts: El Fayum portraits. These portraits are maybe the first representations of real people  in Antiquity. They were done for two reasons: to have a real portrait of a person when he was far from home and later, when he dies, to put in the sarcophagus for the eternal life, as usual in the funeral rites of the Egyptian people. These portraits were done by an special technique: encaustic, that employed honey to fix the colours of the painting. The result was an extremely vivid coloured image. We are fortunate cause numerous of these portraits survive nowadays. Here I show one  the most realistic female El Fayum portraits which may reflect how a female looked at that age in Egypt.

Maiden in yellow (4th century) Paris, Museé du Louvre. All rights reserved.

The next image I want to comment comes from the 19th century. The author is Charles William Mitchell and we can related it with Victorian painting but with a component of Romanticism. It represents Hypatia in the moment before she is going to be killed. She is inside a christian temple, just close to the altar. There are a cross and a chalice over a table and we can see the christian symbol at that age (the greek letters X and P) stablished by Emperor Constantine.

Charles William Mitchell "Hypatia" (1885) Oil on canvas, 244.5 x 152.5 cm, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne. All rights reserved.

Hypatia is nude, but covering the body with her long red hair. Nudity was a previous punishment before torture in Roman Empire, just to dishonour people, to be ashamed inside the community she belongs. But there are strange elements in this painting if we consider the historical period and geography. As we have seen before Hypatia comes from Egypt, so her skin shouldn´t be pale and the hair shouldn´t be red. These components approach to the Romantic way of this painting. Mitchell is taking a Pre-Raphaelite woman to represent an Egyptian one from the fourth century.

Anyway, we must compare this victorian representation of Hypatia to others related with later Pre-Raphaelites as John William Waterhouse when he paints other punished female as “Mariamne Leaving the Judgement Seat of Herod” (1887) or John Everett Millais that painted “The Knight Errant” (1870) about a chained woman.

To finish this post about Hypatia I talk a few about the film “Agora”. The star of the film is Rachel Weisz. Her look and dressing in the film have more similarities with the real Hypatia than the painting of Mitchell. If you watch the film “Agora” you realise the documentation work there is behind the film: the buildings, the costumes, the behaviours, everything drives us to that great age of the Alexandria Library just before its decadence. Rachel Weisz does a good character, you must surprise if compares this film with others like “The Mummy”, Rachel, no doubt, looks another person. This is a very interesting film, because it is didactic. You can find some little lessons of Astronomy, Physics and Mathemathics in a very nice way. Also you found the fanaticism of that Age, and how some christian groups of the beginings could be as intolerant as the pagans a few years before. Hypatia died killed stoned by radical christians that doesn´t understand the attitude of a scientific female that don´t want to participate in religious questions. The film softens the death of Hypatia: one of her disciples breaks her neck just for her not to suffer the stone punishment.

Promotional photo of Alejandro Amenabar's "Agora" (2009). All rights reserved.

“Agora” is, no doubt, one of the best historical spanish films and it´s very original in the point of view, with a component of feminism and heretics. Maybe just beacause of this I like too much this film.

Just three visions of Hypatia from the artistic perspective. Another point of view of this great female of Antiquity.


3 thoughts on “Hypatia

  1. Some essential points: Hypatia’s father, Theon, is the greatest scientist of his period. And Hypatia outshined her father, and she is herself the greatest scientist independent of sex, of her period.

    Hypatia is an ethnic Greek and famous for her beauty. To write “As we have seen before Hypatia comes from Egypt, so her skin shouldn´t be pale and the hair shouldn´t be red.” is almost like writing that Charlise Theron is falsely pictured as white since she was a South African.

    Hypatia is the only woman who was the best Scientist in the World. Will it happen again?

    For those interested in the real Hypatia the work of Michael A. B. Deakin “Hypatia of Alexandria Mathematecian and Martyr” is warmly recommended.

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