Hypatia

Daughter of Theron, Librarian of Alexandria

Hypatia, daughter of Theron, Librarian of Alexandria, 370-415 CE. Picture from The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt.
Hypatia, daughter of Theron, Librarian of Alexandria, 370-415 CE. Picture from The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt.

When the Christians destroyed the Library of Alexandria under Theodosius in 391 and 396CE, the librarian was Theon (or variously Theron). We can imagine his and his daughter Hypatia’s feelings as some 500 000 scrolls representing hundreds of years of collection and research were destroyed. This was a forerunner of the end of “The Golden Age”. Many have argued that the death of Hypatia, only 25 years later introduced the real “dark ages” as the last light of reason was extinguished with her death.

Certainly, due to the deliberate destruction of all things perceived as anti- or even, “not sufficiently pro-” Christian, we don’t know very much about her, and of that, much of what we do know was written by her enemies. Yet she was such a brilliant beacon that even they could not entirely hide the fact that Hypatia was something quite exceptional. Nicephorus, Philostorgius and Socrates Scholasticus (who wrote an ecclesiastical history in the 5th Century infra) mention her, and even these church apologists and manufacturers of pseudographical praised her characteristics and scholarship even as they damned her values. A few surviving letters by one of her former students who she taught neoplatonic ideas, Synesius of Cyrene (infra) and later Bishop of Ptolemais (who helped create the doctrine of the Trinity) provide some background and a few quotations, such as those used here.

And then there was silence

For a long time. Many centuries later (1510-ish) Raphael would allegedly submit a draft of his work, “The School of Athens”, to the church fathers.

The School of Athens, Raffaello Santi (or Sanzio) aka Raphael (1483-1520).
The School of Athens, Raffaello Santi (or Sanzio) aka Raphael (1483-1520).

“Who is this woman in the middle?” asked the Bishops.”

“Hypatia, the most famous student of the School of Athens,” answered Raphael.

“Remove her. Knowledge of her runs counter to the belief of the faithful,” admonished the priest. “Otherwise, the work is acceptable.”

“As you command,” replied the artist, given no choice. However, he still “snuck” her back into the picture, using Francesco Maria della Rovere as his model.

Detail: The School of Athens, Raffaello Santi (or Sanzio) aka Raphael (1483-1520).
Detail: The School of Athens, Raffaello Santi (or Sanzio) aka Raphael (1483-1520).

 

18-th Century and Beyond

However, Hypatia’s story was memetically compelling and during the eighteenth century enlightenment many authors resurrected and retold it. The first, but by no means the most significant (although the foundation for many of the following works) was that by John Toland, a zealous Protestant in 1720. His, “Hypatia, or the History of a Most Beautiful, Most Virtuous, Most Learned and in Every Way Accomplished Lady; Who was Torn to Pieces by the Clergy of Alexandria, to Gratify the Pride, Emulation and Cruelty of the Archbishop, Commonly but Undeservedly Titled St. Cyril” . Voltaire, Fielding, and Gibbon wrote about her, reawakening the ire of the Roman Catholic Church, which responded with an official rebuttal, “The History of Hypatia, a Most Impudent School-Mistress. In Defense of Saint Cyril and the Alexandrian Clergy from the Aspersions of Mr. Toland.”

Throughout the nineteenth Century, she inspired the romantics of England and Europe, the most famous of which was undoubtedly “Hypatia or the New Foes with an Old Face]”, written in 1853 by Charles Kingsley (later to publish, amongst others, Westward Ho and Water Babies, probably his most famous books).

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