Friday, August 05, 2022
The Death of Hypatia
Gibbon describes her flesh being scraped from her bones with oyster-shells, maliciously using the language of Christian martyr texts to attack the zealotry of the early church. Actually we are told only that the monks killed her with roof tiles, a common weapon in ancient street fighting.6 Over the years the most popular of the novels has proved Charles Kingsley's Hypatia, or New Foes with an Old Face (1853), the New Foes being the Catholic church. The event that leads to her murder is the plot of the prefect Orestes to rebel from Rome and declare himself king of Egypt with Hypatia as his queen. As the monks carry her off, "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." Kingsley was no doubt correct in assuming that the monks were dark-skinned Egyptians, but it is instructive that he thought of Hypatia as a fair-skinned English rose. He was not the only Victorian to make this assumption. Charles Mitchell (1854–1903) was so carried away by Kingsley's account that in his famous painting of Hypatia as a naked blonde he forgot to include the monks who supposedly stripped her.7
6. ὀστράκοις; W.D. Barry, “Roof Tiles and Urban Violence in the Ancient World,” GRBS 37 (1996), 55–74, remarkably enough missing the case of Hypatia, no doubt because his material was based on a word search s.v. κεραμ- in TLG.
7. S. Goldhill, Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity (Princeton 2011), 32, and passim on Kingsley and Mitchell.
(Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle,
accession number TWCMS : B8111)