Monday, 24 November 2008

Classical Venus: Hypatia by Charles William Mitchell

Two years before Hacker’s 'Pelagia and Philammon' was exhibited at the Walker gallery Charles William Mitchell's painting, 'Hypatia' had caused a sensation at the Grosvenor Gallery. Hacker has been accused of cashing in on Mitchell’s earlier work in delivering another sensuous nude in the guise of a story with a religious motif.

Hypatia as depicted by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1867. The model is Mary Spartali

Hypatia, the heroine of Kingsley’s novel, was a real person. She is not a well known figure these days (except, perhaps, with feminists and atheist philosophers ). Hypatia was a mathematician, astronomer, and Platonic philosopher born in Alexandria around either 355 or 370 AD, depending on whose arguments you believe. Her most notable work related to conics and she edited the work On the Conics of Appollonius in a form which explained and popularised the work, with its important ideas on hyperbolas, parabolas, and ellipses, ensuring its survival through the centuries. Unfortunately, she was independent (she dressed as a male teacher not in women’s clothes and drove her own chariot), a thinker, female and a pagan in an increasingly Christian environment. Added to this she was friends with the prefect of Alexandria, Orestes, who was engaged in a bitter conflict with Cyril, the Christian Bishop of Alexandria. In the spring of 415 AD a group of Coptic monks pulled her from her chariot, beat her, stripped her, dragged her to a church and mutilated her (flayed with ostrakois -literally, "oyster shells", though generally accepted to refer to roof tiles or broken pottery) body before burning her (while still alive in some accounts). Early Christians, such a liberal, understanding bunch.

Mitchell’s painting shows her facing the mob before the altar of the Caesarium Church in Alexandria . It illustrates, precisely, a passage from Kingsley’s novel:

"On, up the nave, fresh shreds of her dress strewing the holy pavement--up the chancel steps themselves--up to the altar--right underneath the great still Christ: and there even those hell-hounds paused.

She shook herself free from her tormentors, and springing back, rose for one moment to her full height, naked, snow-white against the dusky mass around--shame and indignation in those wide clear eyes, but not a stain of fear. With one hand she clasped her golden locks around her; the other long white arm was stretched upward toward the great still Christ appealing--and who dare say in vain?--from man to God."

Of course it is probable that Hypatia was around sixty (or at least forty-five) when she was murdered and so Mitchell’s painting is another example of a Victorian artist producing a gratuitous nude with classical justification. And why not?

Mitchell (1854-1903) was a bit of a one-hit wonder and never again produced such a popular painting. The picture is in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle.

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