Hypatia is one of those historical figures about whom we know very little. If it weren’t for her pupil Synesios of Cyrene, and if she had not been murdered by the Alexandrian parabolani, we probably never would have heard about her. Such a character, especially a woman, opens the gates to invention and imagination. Hypatia has inspired a lot of artists, writers and philosophers from late antiquity onwards who all used her to defend certain ideologies. Hypatia has become a myth that lives on until today and will inspire generations to come.
The famous School of Athens was painted by Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520) in the 16th century. The painting represents the greatest philosophers of antiquity. The person on the left side of the painting, dressed in white, is supposedly Hypatia. if this is indeed the case, which is not certain, Raphael would have been the first painter in history to capture the image of the philosopher.
During the 17th century, Hypatia appears in four different church histories by historians who use antique sources and mix them with their own interpretations. In Cesar Baronius, we can see elements of the counterreformation and in the work of Louis-Sébastien de Tillemont, Hypatia is even portrayed as a Christian Nestorian writing a (fake) letter to patriarch Kyrillos 15 years after her death! It is clear that Hypatia is being used to defend different religious ideologies in this struggle between Catholics and Protestants.
In the 18th century, different authors openly defend the murder of Hypatia (Claude Pierre Goujet) or accuse Kyrillos of her murder (John Toland). Often these authors have their own hidden agendas and their motive is almost always a religious one. Henry Fielding creates a literary character around the historical Hypatia in 1743. The philosopher is seen as the perfect symbiosis of beauty and intelligence. These works portray Hypatia as a victim of religious fanaticism.
Voltaire and the Enlightenment thinkers focus on two elements: Hypatia was murdered because she did not believe in dogmas and was free in her way of thinking (a key tenet of Enlightenment philosophy). They also focus on the body of the philosopher, which creates a certain sensualism. The insinuations Voltaire makes of Hypatia’s naked body are certainly more provocative than historical.
Edward Gibbon writes about Hypatia in his colossal The decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon was clearly inspired by the Enlightenment and Voltaire’s style. He also emphasizes the beauty and intellect of the philosopher and associates it with her use of reason. His message is clear: Christianity is the cause of the fall of classical civilisation.
During the 19th century, the popularity of Hypatia peaked. She was mentioned in numerous works, especially in poetry and literature. Charles Marie Leconte de Lisle described her as: ‘le corps d’Aphrodite et le soufflé de Platon’. Again the sensualistic theme plays an important role in this l’art pour l’art Hellenism. In one of his poems (Hypatie: different versions exist), Leconte also focuses on her chastity and pure nature. His works were very well known and were very popular.
Hypatia also becomes a character in an English novel; Charles Kingsley writes his Hypatia or the new foes with an old face in 1853. In this very anti-Catholic Victorian novel, Kingsley suggests that the murder resulted into the destruction of scientific knowledge and philosophy in the city of Alexandria: ‘Twenty years after Hypatia’s death, philosophy was flickering down to the very socket. Hypatia’s murder was its death-blow.’
In the 20th century, Hypatia is picked up by feminism and two magazines adopt her name. Judy Chicago honours her in her installation artwork The Dinner Party from 1979, in which a dinner party is visualised that offers 39 seats to women who have put their mark on Western civilisation.
Hypatia’s plate and placemat are very colourful and the artist uses Coptic images to illustrate the female genius in the classical world. According to the artist, Hypatia was murdered because of her intelligence.
The first reference works dealing with Hypatia also appeared during the 20th century. Authors emphasize Hypatia as a philosopher (Mary Allen Waithe, Margaret Alic, Katherine Arens and Linda McAlisters). In 1995, Maria Dzielska published the first historical-critical study of Hypatia, which is still the prime reference work. Hypatia also appears in historical novels and comic books.
In 2009, Hypatia made it to the big screen with Agora, directed by Alejandro Amenábar. In this film, there is a definite link with the political and religious conflicts in the Middle East in the first decade of the 21st century. Agora cannot escape the reality it was created in. Hypatia’s portrayal is two-fold. The director puts the emphasis on Hypatia as a scientist and speculates that she might be the predecessor of Copernicus (who developed his theory on heliocentrism in the 16th century). Hypatia is also portrayed by Amenábar as a free thinker and a religiously tolerant person, which puts her in stark contrast with the different religious communities in the Alexandria of the late-fourth and first-quarter of the fifth century. The director thus partly follows the tradition of Voltaire and the Enlightenment, and combines this with the 20th-century focus on Hypatia as a scientist.
We can conclude by saying that Hypatia has served as a useful metaphor for various writers, artists and philosophers over the years, with the goal and the context changing over time. Because we know so little about the historical Hypatia it is attractive to use her to defend the values of different ideologies. The process has not ended yet and Hypatia will inspire artists and scientist for decades and centuries to come.
Hypatia and her death will always be remembered and the historical person will remain up-to-date and relevant depending on the political and religious contexts that dominate our and future times to come.