Friday, 22 July 2011


Charles William Mitchell (1854-1903): Hypatia

The story behind this Victorian painting is pure tragedy. Hypatia lived in the city of Alexandria in the late 4th-early 5th centuries AD. At this time Christianity was on the rise and grabbing power from the old pagan institutions. Hypatia was a Neoplatonist pagan and a reknowned philosopher, teacher, astronomer and mathematician with tremendous status in the city and influence with its Governor. Being a pagan and a woman this earned her the hatred of Bishop Cyril (later sainted) and during Lent in 415 AD a mob of Christians waylaid her, stripped her naked, dragged her through the streets to a church and butchered her there, using tiles torn from the floor to cut her to pieces.

Mitchell's painting of course shows a romanticised and sexualised version of the moment just before her murder - beauty, nudity but no blood. Only if you know the backstory can you, the viewer, share in the sadism of the occasion.

I recently watched the 2009 movie Agora, which is all about Hypatia (though why they didn't call it Hypatia, I have no idea), who is played by Rachel Weisz as an obsessed geek.

It's a beautiful film, visually speaking - the depiction of ancient Alexandria with its decayed grandeur and the last remnants of its irreplaceable library is just enthralling. The Christians are terrifying - fanatical yet cunning, their appeal to slaves and the poor is clear because they bring hope, like all fundamentalist cults. It's the flipside of those old films like The Robe and Quo Vadis they show on TV at Easter, where the persecution all runs the other way, because it's set just those few years later when the boot is on the other foot. Power corrupts, of course. Agora is a salutory reminder that a religion we tend to see as respectable, sensible and gentle started out as no such thing.

So yes, a good film; not cheerful, either in its plot or its general view of human nature, but absorbing.

Where Agora and Mitchell's painting converge is in their romanticisation of Hypatia's death. The director can't bring himself to show her being skinned alive, so he has her - while the monks are looking in the other direction - smothered in a mercy-killing by an ex-slave who loved her from afar, and then just stoned a bit while already beyond pain. I do get that we don't actually want to see the murder, but once more it feels like a cop-out to me, lessening the sheer brutal mysogyny of the event.

btw: Historian's Notebook has an excellent post on Hypatia here
and discusses the Agora movie in depth here


Jo said...

We saw the gore in Braveheart. Is it because she was a ... woman?

I wish I looked like the first pic, all flaying alive issues aside. (Bleurghghghg)

Janine Ashbless said...

Is it because she was a ... woman?
Perhaps the director had a sentimental attachment to his subject, that made him rewrite history to make it less horrible.

Jo said...

That's one thing I really liked about Buffy. She got punched in the face a lot.

If you know what I mean.

There's a young female boxer from my town, she's won Olympic gold already. Her dad was a boxer too, trained her. It's not my thing, and I wouldn't want my kids doing it. But, I heard her being interviewed once, the dj was asking about how unpleasant it is getting punched in the face. She hesitated, and said, I don't want to sound bad, but to be honest, it doesn't happen that often.

So cool.

Sorry for the huge link.{referrer%3Asource%3F}&rlz=1I7GGLL_en-GB&biw=1024&bih=653&tbm=isch&sa=1&q=katie+traynor+boxer&oq=katie+traynor+boxer&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&gs_sm=e&gs_upl=5257l7077l0l7348l8l8l0l7l0l0l145l145l0.1l1

Janine Ashbless said...

Oh, cheers for Katie!

I hope she does well in 2012 too!