Powerful Women in Shabby Clothes | Birth of Female Asceticism in Coptic Egypt – Part Two

Monday March 3, 2020            By: Dr. Engy Hanna

Mother Antonia and Mother Veronica at the monastery in Woodend, Australia,  Photo via ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky

Where does women’s power come from? Wealth, prestigious profession, being married to an “important” man, giving birth to male children, intellectual ingenuity, sensuous beauty, virtue or the ability to make a difference?

The discourse on women’s power differed from culture to culture, depending on the cultural umbrella of a given society. Many cultures tell stories about exceptional, powerful women. These stories do not necessarily represent the social reality of a given society or a conviction embraced by a whole nation. Queen Hatshepsut, who ascended the throne of Egypt by claiming that she was “the excellent seed” (the daughter) of the God Amun, was an exception. Liberated Spartan women who had distinguished athletic skills were also an exception. It seems that any discussion of women’s power in the context of ancient history has been frequently associated with extravagant appearance or behaviour, which broke taboos that were perceived and labelled by the society as “safe.”

What about women in Coptic Egypt?

These women stood between two totally different epochs: The Classical period and the medieval age. In this world, where the most common and desirable life for women was marriage and the bearing and rearing of children, a new pattern of female lifestyle emerged: “female asceticism.” It became a prominent phenomenon that was tolerated and supported by Late Antique Egyptian society, even though it violated the stereotypical expectations and familiar definitions for women’s behaviour. It was also one of the few realms where women competed with men and attained the highest levels of eremitic and spiritual endeavour.

This female ascetic movement was established on the basis of the belief that women, as well as men, are capable of achieving spiritual perfection. Clement of Alexandria (a philosopher and a theologian who lived in the 2nd and 3rdcenturies A.D.) said: “For self-control is common to all human beings who have chosen it…As regards human nature, the woman does not exhibit one nature, and the man another, but both the same; so also with virtue.” Upon such teachings, female asceticism constructed its towers in Egypt. Large numbers of women streamed into convents and virgins’ houses. In some places, the number of female ascetics was twice the number of male ones. According to a Greek traveller, the city of Oxyrhynchus (Al-Bahnasa), in the fourth century, housed 20,000 virgins and 10,000 monks.

83042054_2779970902097339_5316386204902490112_nFemale ascetics did not only live in isolated monastic communities; they also lived among people in rural and urban communities. Another group of women went further, challenging their nature and overcoming the presumed weakness of their soft bodies. They roamed the deserts and lived in mountains. In A.D. 420, Palladius, a bishop in Bithynia (near Constantinople), wrote the biography of an aristocratic woman called Melania (later known as Saint Melania the Elder). She escaped from the din of life in Rome to the stillness and the solitude of the Egyptian deserts. She became one of the pioneers of a feminist movement that attracted many matrons, members of the aristocratic circle from all over the empire, to ascetic life in the deserts.

In such a climate, the class of female ascetics enjoyed unprecedented power that was not experienced by women from other classes. This power rested upon three pillars:

  • A powerful religious institute supporting and regulating female ascetic life: the Coptic Church, represented by the Church Fathers. For example, Athanasius the Apostolic, the great church father who lived in the fourth century, supported virgins of Alexandria, and Saint Shenouda, an archimandrite who lived in the fifth century, ruled over 1800 nuns in the White Monastery in Atripe, Suhag.
  • A common perception of such women as a vivid manifestation of virtue, because of their charitable works.
  • Wealthy women renouncing their wealth and financing ascetic communities. In his narrative of the life of Melania the Elder, Palladius says: “…taking all of her possessions and loading them on a ship…she quickly sailed to Alexandria. Having sold her belongings for gold, she went to the mountain of Nitria (south of Alexandria).”

By relying on these three sources of power, ascetic women managed to secure political, societal and financial support. Their success raised a question in my mind: Were those female ascetics aware of their own power?

There is hardly any straightforward text that could answer this question. The answer must be read between the lines. One clue can be found in the role of the virgins of Alexandria in the Athanasian–Arian conflict, which may imply their awareness of themselves as a “lobbying group.” The answer could be also embedded in a saying of Amma Theodora (a prominent desert mother) when she responded to two venerable male elders who visited her seeking advice: “According to nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts.” Though her saying implies an inner belief that women are intellectually “inferior” to men, it likewise implies that female asceticism empowered women to be seen as intellectually equal to men.

In brief, the female ascetic identity was formed by constant worship, voluntary poverty, community service, and spiritual mentorship—an identity that made power out of weakness.

How did the Coptic artist convey the features of this identity in visual art?

81890145_512020912754388_1512541289554378752_nThere is hardly any visual representation of female ascetics in the early centuries of Christianity, as far as I know. However, the features of the physical appearance of nuns and virgins could be deduced from the representations of the Virgin Mary (the supreme ecclesiastical symbol of virginity and female asceticism), inasmuch as her portrayal coincides with literary descriptions of nuns’ garments. For example, a mural painting in Antinopolis (Al-Shaikh Ebada, in Minia, Egypt) represents the Virgin Mary to the left of the deceased lady Theodosia holding the so-called disc of victory. Virgin Mary is wearing a baggy, shapeless, plain black ankle-length dress. A large palla headdress covers her head and is wrapped around her body. A white scarf is visible above her forehead. This apparel coincides with the literary description of virgins’ garments in the treatise of Athanasius of Alexandria, On Virginity. It also matches the description of ascetic dress in Gerontius’ biography of Melania the Younger. These texts, in addition to others written by John Chrysostom and Jerome, emphasize that nuns’ dress was simple, inexpensive, and modest, hiding any feminine features.

Nuns’ clothing might have been regarded as shabby, but it carried special power and immunity, to the extent that some women from other classes (like dancers) sometimes disguised themselves in nuns’ dress for protection.

Why would a dancer disguise herself in a nun’s dress? What did she really look like? How did her identity as a dancer subject her to danger? This is what I will discuss in my next article.

More read:  What Coptic Artefacts Tell us About Women in Antique Egypt | Part One

83077852_871663743263975_8868534874084999168_nDr Engy Hanna, Lecturer of Coptic Art and Archaeology in Minia University.  She completed her Ph.D. at Sussex University in 2017. Her research interests lie in the area of Early Byzantine Art History, more specifically social history, secular art, gender, and sensory perception. Dr Hanna has collaborated actively with staff members at Sussex University. She designed and implemented courses about Coptic Art, Early Christian Art, and Byzantine art history in Egypt and UK. Her book Women in Antique Egypt Through Coptic Art,  will be available in bookstores Soon.

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