Hypatia of Alexandria was the first woman to make significant advances in the fields of mathematics and philosophy and was also a respected teacher and astronomer.
Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, a practicing mathematician and teacher, and she was encouraged to develop her talents in the field. Theon invented the astrolabe, a device that measured the altitude of stars and planets, and it is likely that Hypatia assisted with this invention. She became a teacher and eventually the head of a Platonist school in Alexandria, known as the Museum of Alexandria, in 400. It was here that she taught and mentored some of the greatest Pagan and Christian minds of the day, including Orestes, the prefect of Alexandria, who later became a close friend. In teaching, Hypatia focused primarily on the work of two Neoplatonic figures—Plotinus, the philosophy's founder, and his student Iamblichus.
Hypatia resurrected an interest in Greek religion and goddesses. She came to embody the type of science and learning equated with pagan teachings, such as astrology and numerology, and was an ardent supporter of Greek thought and philosophy. During her career, she wrote several books and essays, including The Astronomical Canon. It is unclear whether she conducted her own mathematical research, but she furthered the efforts of established men in the field, her most extensive work being in algebra.
In an environment that was turning increasingly Christian, Hypatia's sex was less controversial than her Paganism. Most scholars during her time converted from Paganism to Christianity in order to protect themselves against religious hostility. Hypatia refused and continued to teach Pagan beliefs, which made her a target for violence. She became the focal point in a series of riots between Christians and Pagans. The rioting increased, and Hypatia was murdered by radical Christian monks in 415, who stripped her of her clothes, scraped her flesh from her bones, tore off her limbs, and burned her mutilated body. The Pagan beliefs and scientific knowledge she espoused during her lifetime were ultimately threatening to the Christian church, and a few years after her death, the Museum of Alexandria was raided and all of her writings destroyed.
Hypatia's place setting employs materials, motifs, and weaving techniques from the Coptic style of her time. The runner is bordered with woven bands of wool with interlacing patterns as well as heart motifs similar to those found in the ornamentation of Coptic tunics.
The orange, red, and green palette used in the runner is repeated in Hypatia's plate, which incorporates a leaf motif also based on those found in Coptic tapestries. The plate's imagery can also be interpreted as a butterfly form; the scalloped edges of the lower wing segments give the illusion of motion. Chicago suggests that this reference to flight, as well as the form's raised relief, refers to Hypatia's attempt to "break free from the constraints imposed upon so many women of her time" (Chicago,The Dinner Party, 58).
Embroidered on the back of the runner are four crying female faces from youth to old age that represent Hypatia in the Coptic style, suggesting that she stood for women of all ages. The image's blurred appearance, and the depiction of four limbs being pulled in different directions represents the brutality of Hypatia's death and the conflict created by her religious beliefs. Chicago uses a blood-red color in this panel, along with a rainbow of tones, which suggests the dichotomy of violence and beauty in Hypatia's life.
A rendering of Hypatia's face, based on an actual Coptic weaving of a goddess, peers through the capital "H" in her illuminated letter. Her mouth is covered in a band, which represents her silencing as well as the "deliberate muting of other powerful women" (Chicago, The Dinner Party, 58).
Related Heritage Floor Entries
Socrates Scholasticus. The Murder of Hypatia from Ecclesiastical History. 4th century.
Damascius. The Suda. 10th century.
Translations, Editions, and Secondary Sources
Alic, Margaret. Hypatia's Heritage. A History of Women in Science from Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
Dzielska, Maria. Hypatia of Alexandria. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.
McAlister, Linda L. Hypatia's Daughters: Fifteen Hundred Years of Women Philosophers. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1996.
Osen, Lynn M. Women in Mathematics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1974.