About the artwork
The modern gallery visitor can be excused for finding this picture incomprehensible.
A near-naked woman lies on the ground. Above her head a halo hovers like a smoke ring. Near by a hooded figure sits, plate, chalice and rosary beads by his side. In the distance vultures gather. In the foreground a large bracelet is half buried in the sand.
The title, 'Pelagia and Philammon', is no help, nor is the information that these two characters are from a novel, called Hypatia, by Charles Kingsley, published 1853. Kingsley is not widely read today, apart perhaps from 'The Water Babies' and 'Westward Ho!' Very few of us have read his first historical novel about the religious politics of fifth century Alexandria, the dreadful climax of which has Hypatia, the brilliant and beautiful Neoplatonist 'pagan' philosopher, stripped and torn to pieces by a fanatical mob of Christian monks.
Visitors to the Grosvenor Gallery in 1887 or to the Walker Art Gallery during the Autumn Exhibition of the same year would have been at an advantage to those of today. They would have had at least a nodding acquaintance with Kingsley's novel. They would also have seen or read of Charles William Mitchell's painting, 'Hypatia', which caused a sensation when exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery two years earlier. It showed Kingsley's eponymous heroine, clad only in her hair, backed against the Christian altar and gesturing towards heaven, as she faces her gruesome murder at the hands of the ravening monks. Indeed, Arthur Hacker might be accused of cashing in on Mitchell's success and Kingsley's novel with another sensuous female nude accompanied by the trappings of religion.
Sister and Brother
Pelagia and Philammon are sister and brother, separated in childhood. Philammon becomes a monk, Pelagia a dancer and courtesan. They are reunited in Alexandria only to be separated in the chaos following Hypatia's murder. Twenty years later, Philammon, now Abbot of his monastery, goes in search of his sister. Pelagia meanwhile has become a Christian hermit in the desert. She has given away all her finery except for 'one bracelet of gold, of large size and strange workmanship, engraven with foreign characters, which no one could decipher.'
Philammon finds his sister at the point of death and administers the holy sacraments to her. Later, a search party from the monastery discover their dead Abbot lying next to his sister in a shallow grave. The bodies had been guarded by two lions who kept the vultures at bay until the grave could be filled in.
Arthur Hacker (1858-1919) studied at the Royal Academy and in Paris. He was 29 when he exhibited Pelagia and Philammon, his first serious painting of the nude figure. He had by this time travelled widely in France, Italy, Spain and - an especially relevant source for this picture - in Algeria and Morrocco. The vultures were studied at London Zoo.
The painting was largely well received in the press. The Magazine of Art noted that it was 'a rather conspicuous departure from the class of domestic genre in which [Hacker] first attained repute' and that 'the painter's conception has true inspiration and dramatic feeling.' The Saturday Review, however, criticised 'the summariness with which...the limbs of ... Pelagia are indicated... rather pretended than real... an effect, not of accomplishment and knowledge, but of technical incapacity and insincere or unlearned observation.'
It was purchased from the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition for £315. Elsewhere in the Walker's collection is Hacker's 'Christ and Magdalen' (1890).
An audio recording of Dr Paul O'Keeffe's gallery talk on 'Pelagia and Philammon' is available on this website.