Liverpool Walker Art Gallery Artwork of The Month, April 2007. ‘Pelagia and Philammon’, by Arthur Hacker
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.
Free gallery talks on Thursday 12 and Tuesday 24 April, 13.00