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Transcript of 'Pelagia and Philammon' podcast

Welcome to April's picture of the month. Again, apologies for the position of this picture. It probably explains why it's never been done as picture of the month before, although it hasn't always been there. We are in uncharted territory here. It's never been spoken about as the picture of the month and I believe they also had difficulty finding a colour image of it. We are in virgin territory, this is a first for the Walker Art Gallery.

Arthur Hacker. Not one of your best known artists. He studied at the Royal Academy in London and he also studied in Paris and he was 29 when he exhibited this picture. It was his first serious painting of the nude figure. He had by this time travelled widely in France, Italy, Spain and, crucially, in North Africa.

This was a departure from the sort of painting that he was known for at the time. In The Times in 1887 the review of this picture ran as follows:

'Till now Mr Hacker has been content to paint on a large scale scenes of homely life. Mothers and children, or sailors' wives waiting for the boat's doubtful return. He has treated these subjects with so much ability and freshness that we had thought that his proper career lay in investing that kind of art with some of the distinction in which English domestic pictures have generally been lacking.

His version of Kingsley's story however shows that he was justified in venturing into the field of Legend.'

Just before we get on to Kingsley's story, I found a reference to Arthur Hacker in The Times, 1984, 6 October and Arthur Hacker, the headline was 'Arthur Hacker has his £29700 day of glory'. It's a little article about an auction, Sotheby's auction in Chester. It says 'One Arthur Hacker, a turn of the century British artist that no-one but specialists has ever heard of, achieved a moment of glory yesterday when two bidders fought for possession of one of his pictures in a Sotheby's sale in Chester. They ran the price to £29700 when the artist normally sells in the region of £2-500'.

So he's not very fashionable, Arthur Hacker. Then it says what this £29700 painting was like. It says:

'The small painting is titled 'In Jeopardy' and depicts a pretty girl surrounded by blossom on the banks of a river staring hopelessly after her parasol which has fallen in'.

That gives you an idea of the sort of picture Arthur Hacker was generally known for. If you look about you in this room there are various couples as subjects for paintings that you can identify. You've got 'Adam and Eve. Over there, you've got 'Dante and Beatrice’; you've also got 'Dante and Beatrice' over there. You've got a little painting over there 'Orpheus and Eurydice'. Up there you've got 'Perseus and Andromeda'. All of them fairly well known. We know the vague legends on which these paintings are based. We know Perseus rescues Andromeda from a dragon.

The only problem you'd have is with a picture like that over there called 'Venus and Anchises'. Now I know Anchises doesn't trip off the tongue but at least we know who one of the couple is - Venus.

When we come to 'Pelagia and Philammon' however we're in difficulties. Who has ever heard of Philammon and Pelagia? When I tell you that Philammon and Pelagia are characters in a novel by Charles Kingsley called Hypatia, I think we're none the wiser. Has anybody read Charles Kingsley's Hypatia?

- The Water Babies.

The Water Babies, Yes. People have read the Water Babies. They may well have read Westward, Ho! Anybody read Hereward the Wake? It was another big popular success.

Hypatia was Charles Kingsley's first historical novel. It was published in 1853. I'm actually starting I think quite rightly here from an assumption of absolute abject ignorance on the part of all of you about Charles Kingsley's Hypatia. It was certainly the position I started from when I started working on this talk. Hypatia, this novel, it had a subtitle 'New foes with an old face'.

Just to explain, Charles Kingsley was an Anglican clergyman. But he had a political agenda. He was very much opposed to high church Anglicanism. When he came to write this novel called Hypatia or 'New foes with an old face', it was a political novel. The new foes he talks about were Cardinal Newman. Cardinal Newman was a convert to Roman Catholicism in 1845. The new foes were also High Church Anglicanism. Also the Oxford Movement, a reaction against what was perceived of as a dangerous liberalism in the Church of England during the 1830s and 1840s.

Kingsley was dead against High Church Anglicanism. Everything that Cardinal Newman stood for and the sort of rigorous muscular Christianity of the Oxford Movement. Kingsley was an unashamed wishy-washy liberal. He was very much opposed to celibacy. Apparently he had difficulties with his wife, getting her to marry him because she was aiming at a life of celibacy but he persuaded her and they had a very happy marriage together. He was dead against all this Roman Catholicism and High Church Anglicanism.

That's the new foes in the subtitle. The old face was the actual subject of the novel - epitomised by the repressive by the repressive regime of Abbot Cyril, later Saint Cyril of Alexandria. In the fifth century. Abbot Cyril, later canonised, cracked down on everything that wasn't Christianity in Alexandria. He was very much down on paganism, the revival of the old Greek religions. He was very much down on Judaism and as for the Muslims he was very much down on them as well.

St Cyril, he was Kingsley's bete noir. New foes, Cardinal Newman, with an old face, Abbot Cyril of Alexandria.

Hypatia was a historical character. She was a woman who was learned in mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. She was also a teacher of the neo-Platonist philosophy, which was the revival of the Ancient Greek religion. She taught in Alexandria, a whole circle of eager students. She taught Plato's philosophy.

She was murdered, it is alleged, on the orders of Abbot Cyril of Alexandria. She was murdered in a particularly gruesome way by a mob of fanatical Christian monks. Celibates to a man! This happened in about 400 AD.

Edward Gibbon gives an account of the murder of Hypatia. He says:

'On a fateful day in the holy season of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot. Stripped naked. Dragged to the church and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the Reader and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics. Her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster shells. Her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames.'

So much for Hypatia, the subject of Kingsley's novel.

The people who came to see Hacker's picture of 'Pelagia and Philammon' would have come to see it first at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1887. It went from the Grosvenor Gallery up to the Autumn Exhibition here in the Walker in the same year. From whence it was bought for the Walker's collection.

All of these people one assumes who saw this picture would have had a nodding acquaintance with Kingsley's novel Hypatia. We assume. Some of them may even have read Gibbon and know who Hypatia was at least. They would also have known of the picture that was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery two years previously and this was a picture by Charles William Mitchell and it was called Hypatia.

So you actually had two major oil paintings within the space of two years on Kingsley's novel. Now Hypatia by Charles William Mitchell is now in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle and it illustrated the sensational climax of Kingsley's novel - the actual murder of Hypatia. In the novel she is dragged in this great seething mass of fanatical priests. The passage goes on - 'Up the nave, fresh shreds of her dress strewing the holy pavement. Up the chancel steps themselves, up to the altar. Right underneath the great, still Christ. And there, even these hell-hounds paused. Hypatia shook herself free from her tormentors and springing back rose from one moment to her full height, naked, snow-white against the dusky mass around, shame and indignation in those wide clear eyes but not a stain of fear. With one hand she clasped her golden locks around her, the other long arm was stretched upward towards the great, still Christ, appealing - and who dare say in vain - from Man to God.'

You have this moment which is captured by Mitchell in his painting and she is backed up against the altar, one step up and looking like that. She's got this long golden hair which is covering her up strategically. Spectacular, sensational nude painting of 1885.

I reckon that anybody who saw that painting by Mitchell at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1885, if they hadn't already read Kingsley's Hypatia I'm damned sure that they would have gone out and bought it and read it avidly. It is a very sensational novel it has to be said.

The murder of Hypatia, we are getting to this picture, but you need the back story first. The murder is witnessed by Philammon. Philammon is the main character. He is the central figure of the novel. He is a young monk from outside Alexandria who wants to see life and he comes to Alexandria and he falls under the spell of Hypatia. He spends practically the whole novel torn between his Christian beliefs and his love for the pagan Hypatia.

Philammon witnesses this ghastly murder of Hypatia. Philammon has also spent practically the whole novel torn between two women. There's Hypatia and then there's Pelagia. Pelagia is the other heroine of the novel. Pelagia is Philammon's long-lost sister. They're both Greek. Separated at birth. Philammon becomes a monk, Pelagia becomes a harlot in Alexandria and also an exotic dancer specialising in a dance about the birth of Aphrodite to vast cheering crowds. She dances this dance dressed only in hair and jewels.

Poor old Philammon is absolutely appalled but he finds his long-lost sister and immediately realises she is not only a harlot but actually showing her charms off to half of Alexandria in the Forum. To make matters worse she is also the lover of a large blonde Goth called Amalric the Amal. Huge bloke. Blonde hair. Viking helmet perhaps. All fur and testosterone.

She is the lover of this blonde Goth who also of course is a pagan. So Philammon is not best pleased.

So much for the back story of this picture by Hacker.

After the murder of Hypatia, Philammon leaves Alexandria broken-hearted and becomes a hermit in the desert. Pelagia, after the killing of Amalric the Goth, which happened shortly after the death of Hypatia, she also leaves Alexandria, broken-hearted and goes and lives also as a hermit in the desert. We can imagine this desert is actually swarming with hermits but it's a big desert and you can accommodate a lot of hermits in this desert.

Philammon then is recalled to his old monastery and becomes the Abbot where he gets a reputation as a devout Abbot, very very kindly. But there's also suspicion about him because it is known every night that he prays for two women and an old monk comes to see him and he says 'there's talk among the brothers. These two women you're always praying for'. Philammon says 'Tell my brethren that I pray nightly for two women, both of them young, both of them beautiful, both of them beloved by me more than I love my own soul and tell them moreover that one of the two was a harlot and the other a heathen'.

So that's telling him. One night Philammon has a vision and the vision shows the two women in his life that he loves more than his own soul in heaven. Hypatia the heathen, Pelagia the harlot. They are holding hands and beckoning for him to join them. He knows that Hypatia is dead; this vision tells him that also his sister Pelagia is dead. So forthwith he sets out into the desert. He takes the plate and the goblet, the chalice and the host and the holy water and the crucifix and he sets off into the desert looking for his sister Pelagia.

He is followed by a couple of young monks just to check on where he is going. The young monks then take up the story and this comes right at the end of Kingsley's novel. Almost an epilogue. The passage goes, the two monks met with a certain Moorish people who declared that certain days before a priest had passed them bearing a pattern and chalice and blessing them in silence. Proceeding across the desert in the direction of the cave of the holy Amal.

The two monks enquiring who this holy Amma might be, the Moors answered that some twenty years ago there had arrived in those mountains a woman more beautiful that had ever been in that region, dressed in rich garments, who after a short sojourn among their tribe, having distributed among them the jewels which she wore, had embraced the eremitic life. The eremitic life is the poetic word for hermit. It comes from the original Greek word meaning hermit.

She embraces the eremitic life and 'she sojourned upon the highest peak of a neighbouring mountain till her garments failing her she became invisible to mankind. Saving to a few women of the tribe who went up from time to time to carry her offerings of fruit and meal and to ask the blessings of her prayers. To whom she rarely appeared, veiled down to her feet in long black hair of exceeding length and splendour.'

In other words, she lets herself go. All her clothes fall off and it becomes a perfect subject for Hacker, showing a naked woman with long hair. Just what you need. In many ways Mitchell had got the best subject from the novel - Hypatia with her hair - Hacker is latching on to Pelagia. Then, the passage goes on. 'Hearing these things the two monks doubted for a while but at last determined to proceed, arriving at sunset upon the summit of the said mountain, where behold a great miracle. For above an open grave, freshly dug in the sand a cloud of vultures hovered. Whom two lions, fiercely contending, drove away with their talons as if from some sacred deposit therein enshrined. Towards whom the two brothers fortifying themselves with the sign of the cross ascended. Whereupon the lions, having fulfilled the terms of their guardianship retired, left to the brethren a sight they beheld with astonishment and not without tears. For in the open grave lay the body of Philammon the Abbot and by his side, wrapped in his coat, the corpse of the woman of exceeding beauty such as the Moors had described. Whom embracing straightly as a brother and sister and joining his lips to hers he had rendered up his soul to God not without bestowing on her the most holy sacrament for by the graveside stood the pattern and the chalice emptied of their divine content.'

What Hacker has done here is show the scene not described by Kingsley that takes place as Philammon arrives to find his sister dead. She is lying there. She is practically naked. She's actually got a sheepskin loin cloth on. She's not as naked as Kingsley would have us believe when he says that her clothes had failed her.

She's got a sheepskin or goatskin loincloth but it's before Philammon wraps her in his cloak. Presumably he has just given her the sacrament and she has just died. The halo above her face is rather unusual actually. Normally when you have a halo the saintly person is upright. It's almost as if she's just blown a smoke ring.

The setting, the landscape, owed a great deal to Hacker's recent travels in Algeria and Morocco. You've got vultures on the crest of the ridge there, right in the background, a line of vultures, described in Kingsley's novel. Apparently, Hacker went to London Zoo to study the vultures.

One final detail is in the foreground, the half-buried bracelet. These young monks after finding the bodies, it says, 'Searching the cave wherein the holy woman dwelt, they found neither food furniture nor other matters, saving one bracelet of gold of large size and strange workmanship, engraven with foreign characters which no-one could decipher'.

The two monks cover the two bodies and they take the bracelet back to their monastery where it becomes a sacred relic and pilgrims come and look at it. It works several miracles. The blind are made to see and the lame to walk. Later on, this is right at the end of Kingsley's novel, 'Later, that part of Egypt where the monastery is is overrun by marauding Goths' and these marauding Goths do what marauding Goths do.

According to Kingsley, 'plundering and burning all monasteries and insulting the consecrated virgins'. They also carry off the sacred relic and he says, 'Impiously, they pretended that the bracelet had belonged to a warrior of their tribe and thus expounded the writing thereon engraven. For Amalric the Amal, Smid Troll's Son Made Me.' The bracelet was given by Pelagia's lover to Pelagia and essentially the strange writing that nobody could decipher actually means this bracelet belongs to Amalric.

So it's a nice irony right at the end of the novel and it's very much along the lines of Kingsley's beliefs as a Christian that the Goths, these pagans, one of their bracelets eventually ends up as a Christian holy relic.

That's about all I have to say on the subject of Philammon and Pelagia or Pelagia and Philammon, except to say that it was well-received although there was rather an interesting observation which I've never really been able to work out what it means. One of the critics said that the 'summeriness with which the limbs of Pelagia are indicated is rather pretended than real and is in effect not of accomplishment and knowledge but of technical incapacity and insincere or unlearned observation'.

So, could try harder being the message there. It was purchased from the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition in 1887 for the sum of £315 as opposed to the £29700 that a minor Arthur Hacker fetched in 1987. Elsewhere in the gallery, just at the top of the stairs is the Walker's other Hacker - 'Christ and the Magdalen' showing Mary Magdalen kneeling at Christ's feet in his carpenter's shop.