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Allegory of Inclination, by Artemisia Gentileschi
Hypatia by Charles William Mitchell - Passionate Painting
123    Dibyendu Banerjee    27/05/2024

Hypatia, the best known painting of the English painter Charles William Mitchell and presently on display at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, was likely inspired by the Charles Kingsley novel ‘Hypatia, or New Foes with an Old Face’, depicting the life of the philosopher, astronomer and mathematician of the same name, who lived in Alexandria, the then part of the Eastern Roman Empire, where she taught philosophy and astronomy.

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While Hypatia was the first female mathematician whose life is reasonably well recorded, Charles William Mitchell was an English Pre-Raphaelite painter, who was born just after the dissolution of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and was clearly influenced by another English Pre-Raphaelite painter, John William Waterhouse.

hypatia by charles william mitchell

The story of Hyptia is stranger than fiction. Possibly born between 350 and 370 AD, in a men dominated world, she remained unmarried and dedicate her life for science and teaching.

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Known for her dignity and virtue, she headed the Neoplatonic School in Alexandria, where she taught philosophy and astronomy, and was loved and appreciated for her method of teachings by both the pagan and Christian students alike. She has been credited with writing commentaries on the thirteen-volume Arithmetica of Diophantus and also commentaries on Apollonius of Perga’s treatise on conic sections in geometry. Apart from that, she was a prominent thinker and a wise counsellor in Alexandria, used to deliver public lectures, which were attended by government officials seeking her advice on different matters, and established great influence with the political elite in Alexandria.

hypatia by charles william mitchell

With the progress of time, Hypatia became more popular and at the same time influential, but her increasing popularity inspired a fatal envy in the bishop. Unfortunately, that was the time when the political situation of Alexandria was increasingly becoming complicated, as the Christians became desperate to make Alexandria a Christian city. Apart from that, her female identity earned the wrath and jealousy of her Christian adversaries, who were dogged on restricting the influence of women in every sphere.

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Eventually, she became embroiled in a bitter feud between Orestes, her former student, as well as the Roman governor of Alexandria, and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, over local Jewish dancing exhibitions. Finally, on an early spring day in March 415 AD, a frenzied Christian mob, led by a lector named Peter, forcibly pulled down the city’s beloved and respected teacher of mathematics and philosophy from her carriage on a street in Alexandria, dragged her to a church, stripped her naked and brutally battered her to death.

hypatia by charles william mitchell

Hypatia, an oil on canvas painting created in 1885 by Charles William Mitchell, depicts a beautiful young naked woman, with her long, golden tresses clasped to her right breast and also covering her genitalia, her left hand raised helplessly in the dark austere interior of a church, contrasting with her luminous beauty, leaning back against a carved stone altar, while her expression is anxious, signifying the moment before her brutal murder. The painting undoubtedly evidences the artistic genius Charles William Mitchell in creating a spectacular scene using contrasting colours, realistic details and evocative symbols. However, the painting may also signify the threatening of the barbaric forces of religious fanaticism disturbing the harmony of the nostalgic classical world.

hypatia by charles william mitchell
Allegory of Inclination, by Artemisia Gentileschi
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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