Hypatia’s Forgotten History, and How Raphael Saved It

Death of philosopher Hypatia in Alexandria, artist unknown, c. 1865

If there’s one thing that’s consistent in world history, it’s the amnesia that follows the recollection of successful women. One glowing example of this was Hypatia of Alexandria, the first woman philosopher-turned-martyr due to political and religious upheaval during the fourth century AD. Her father, Theon of Alexandria, trained her as a mathematician, but she also worked as an astronomer and physicist. However, her priority was operating at the head of the Neoplatonic School of Philosophy. While she rose to fame during a period when women were considered lesser human beings and thus property, her status as the daughter of Theon, along with her father’s steadfast support, kept her in her work.


During the Renaissance period, the focus of paintings shifted away from Christian depictions and more toward the elevation of figures of antiquity in literature and history. Hypatia appeared in Raphael’s first painting for the Roman Catholic Church, The School of Athens. Hypatia was the only figure painted to be looking out of the painting and towards the viewer. In the fresco, he depicts her wearing white robes called a Greek Tribon, worn by many philosophers to indicate and exemplify an indifference to material wealth. Not only did he paint her with astounding beauty at the center of the work, but he also forced every person to look her in the eyes after her brutal and religiously-charged demise.

 

However, her history of existence in the painting was a turbulent one. Whether an artist had two years or 20 years of experience under their belt working for the Church, the approval process for paintings was brutal.

“Who is the beautiful lady in the middle?” the Bishop asked. “She is Hypatia of Alexandria, the most famous student of the School of Athens. She was a professor of philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy at the University of Alexandria and certainly one of the greatest thinkers ever,” Raphael replied.

Hypatia

The Bishop immediately called for her removal.


The uproar to remove her has historical context. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Catholic Church was losing legitimacy amidst the rise of secular humanism, so the intended purpose of the commissioned fresco was to elevate the scientific minds of ancient society while praising the foundations of Catholicism. Having a woman take up space in the center simply would go against the teachings of the Church, which was already losing popularity. To maintain her space within the painting, Hypatia’s image was shifted away from the center of the work and was placed along with Parimedes and Pythagoras. However, from historical standards, Hypatia shared just as much impact on history as these men.

 

During her time, Hypatia wasn’t just known as a well-renowned philosopher that just so happened to be a woman, she was the most esteemed philosopher in all of Alexandria.  She was an outspoken pagan who believed in the search for knowledge and truth from within, stating that  “no priests should be allowed to force their beliefs on you and rob you of your right to evolve your own way of life.”


A crucial element of her identity was her outspoken paganist ideology during the Constantine Empire in Rome, a time characterized by political unrest and the Christianization of Europe. The University of Alabama recounts her words about religion as

“All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final. Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all. To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing.”

Because of her outspoken stance on religion, Hypatia was caught in the middle of a religious uprising. In 415, Archbishop Cyril was rivals with the local political figure Orestes in a squabble for religious reign. Hypatia sided with Orestes in this feud, for they were close friends then. From this point, Cyril began plotting Hypatia’s demise. Damascus, the final head of the School of Athens, recalled the moments leading up to the day she died as a point of jealousy, seeing crowds gather around Hypatia’s house, eager to meet the intellectual celebrity engulfing the masses, instead of any masses congregating for the Church, which was founded just 300 years prior.


From here, Hypatia’s story becomes so graphic it’s difficult to write out. Hypatia was stripped naked and dragged into the temple Kaiserion. Her skin was ripped off using ostraka—which scholars have translated to ‘oyster shells’ and ‘roof tiles,’ neither of which sound particularly pleasant. Her identity was stripped from her by the mob of Christians as they tore her skin from her body. Her limbs were dragged throughout the town, displayed for all to see. Her death immediately changed the trajectory of her legacy from a prominent woman in scholarship to a victim of a religious shift and an enemy of Christianity.

Hypatia portrait. Image courtesy of Echo University
Hypatia portrait. Image courtesy of Echo University
Fictional Portrait of Hypatia of Alexandria by Jules Maurice Gaspard, 1908
Fictional Portrait of Hypatia of Alexandria by Jules Maurice Gaspard, 1908

Some spaces for information tend to leave out those parts. The Smithsonian describes the actions of the angry mob as they “stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles.” This is not technically wrong but lacks nuance. They PG’d her death to make it more digestible as if they stripped her naked and then beat her in the streets. Not exactly. The angry Christian mob peeled her skin off with roof tiles and clam shells while she was still alive.


Shortly after her death, the mysterious burning of the Library of Alexandria occurred along with the fall of the Roman Empire, throwing the Western World into the Medieval Ages, a period of devotion towards the Catholic Church. 
 

Even still, Raphael carved out space for her image amongst the other great philosophers and astronomers of antiquity. And while her story faded into the background, much like her presence in the painting, her continued existence in The School of Athens and her few surviving essays serve as a reminder of the consequences of religious nationalism and mob mentality.


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