Thaïs (saint)

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Saint Thaïs
José de Ribera 024.jpg
St. Thais by Jusepe de Ribera (alternately, of St. Mary Magdalen).
Born c. 4th century
Died unknown
Venerated in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Church
Feast October 8

St. Thaïs of fourth-century Roman Alexandria and of the Egyptian desert was a repentant courtesan.

Accounts of her Life[edit]

St. Thaïs reportedly lived during the fourth century in Roman Egypt. She is included in literature on the lives of the saints in the Greek church. Two biographical sketches exist: one in Greek perhaps of the fifth century (it was translated into Latin as the Vita Thaisis by Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Little) during the sixth or seventh century); the other sketch comes to us in medieval Latin by Marbod of Rennes (d. 1123). She also appears in Greek martyrologies by Maurolychus and Greven, though not in Latin martyrologies.[1] The lives of the desert saints and hermits of Egypt, including St. Thaïs, were collected in the Vitae Patrum.[2][3] There has modernly emerged a theory that her story consists of "probably only a moral tale invented for edification."[4][5] Notwithstanding, St. Thaïs remains on the Calendar of the Catholic Church, with her feast day being celebrated October 8.[6]

Thaïs is first briefly described as a wealthy and beautiful courtesan living in the prestigious city of Alexandria, in the eyes of the church a public sinner. Eventually, however, she inquires about Christianity and then converts. In her Vita a monk in disguise pays for entry into her chambers in order to challenge her and convert her, yet he finds that she already believes in God, from whom nothing is hidden. The identity of this person who instructs and offers Thaïs the opportunity of spiritual transformation is unclear, three names being mentioned: St. Paphnutius (Egyptian Bishop in Upper Thebaïd),[7] St. Bessarion (disciple of St. Anthony in the Egyptian desert), and St. Serapion (Bishop in the Nile Delta).[8] Following her acceptance into the Church, she is shown a convent cell where she is provisioned for three years, during which time she performs penance for her sins. When she later emerges, it is said, she lives among the nuns of the Egyptian desert only for a brief period of fifteen days, then she dies.[1][9]

In 1901 the Egyptologist Albert Gayet (1856–1916) announced the discovery near Antinoë in Egypt of the mummified remains of Thaïs and Sérapion, which were exhibited at the Musée Guimet in Paris. Shortly thereafter he qualified his identification, leaving open the possibility of the remains not being those of the two saints.[10]

In Art and Literature[edit]

Traditional pictures of Thaïs show her in two different scenes:

  • Burning her treasures and ornaments.
  • Praying in a convent cell, with a scroll on which is written "Thou who didst create me have mercy on me."[1]

Later during the Renaissance, the Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652), whose career was spent largely in Naples, offered his composition (above).

Medieval play[edit]

Main article: Paphnutius (play)

Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (935-1002), a Benedictine Canoness of Saxony (northwest Germany), wrote in Latin the play Pafnutius in which St. Thaïs appears, despite the title, as the principal character of interest. The play, of course, places her story in a European dress and in a medieval spirituality. Here is St. Pafnutius addressing the abbess of the desert convent, concerning care for their new convert Thaïs:

"I have brought you a half-dead little she-goat, recently snatched from the teeth of wolves. I hope that by your compassion [her] shelter will be insured, and that by your care, [she] will be cured, and that having cast aside the rough pelt of a goat she will be clothed with the soft wool of the lamb."[11][12]

During the European Middle Ages, the historical evidence indicate a widespread popularity for the story of St. Thaïs.[3]

Modern culture[edit]

After the distinctive artistic lead of Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880) in his La tentation de Saint Antoine (1874),[13] there eventually followed, in a decidedly more skeptical, yet still historic-religious vein, the French novel Thaïs (1890). This inspired the French opera Thaïs (1894). Later followed the London play Thais (1911), the Hollywood film Thais (1917), and the Franco-Rumanian statue Thaïs (1920s).

Main article: Thaïs (novel)

France's Thaïs is an historical novel published at Paris in 1890 and written by Anatole France (1844–1924). Paphnuce, an ascetic hermit of the Egyptian desert, journeys to Alexandria to find Thais, the libertine beauty whom he knew as a youth. Masquerading as a dandy, he is able to speak with her about eternity; surprisingly he succeeds in converting her to Christianity. Yet on their return to the desert he becomes fascinated with her former life. She enters a convent to repent of her sins. He cannot forget the pull of her famous beauty, and becomes confused about the values of life. Later, as she is dying and can only see heaven opening before her, he comes to her side and tells her that her faith is an illusion, and that he loves her.[14][15]

Mary Garden in the opera Thaïs.
Main article: Thaïs (opera)

Massenet's Thaïs is an opera first performed in Paris at the Opéra on March 16, 1894. The music is by Jules Massenet (1842–1912). The libretto by Louis Gallet (1835–1898) drew upon the novel of Anatole France. The opera omits the novel's skeptical chapter on the vanity of philosophy. The hermit's name was changed to Athanaël, who is presented with greater sympathy than in the novel. The first duet between Athanaël and Thaïs contrasts his stern accents and her raillery. The last scene's duet shows a reversal of rôles, in which the pious and touching phrases of Thaïs transcend the despairing ardour of Athanaël. Chants of desolation, and later, return of the beautiful violin from an earlier symphonic méditation (first played during the intermezzo when Thaïs had converted) complete the final effect.[16][17]

Wilstach's Thais is a play performed at the Criterion Theatre in London, March 14 through April, 1911 (31 performances). Written by the American Paul Wilstach (1870-1952), it starred Constance Collier (1878–1955) playing the title role and Tyrone Power, Sr. (1869–1931) as the hermit. Earlier the play had a trial run in Boston.[18]

Main article: Thais (1917 film)

Goldwyn's Thais is a Hollywood film which featured the operatic soprano Mary Garden (1874-1967). Earlier she had performed the title role in Massenet's opera Thaïs at l'Opéra Comique of Paris. The film, produced by Samuel Goldwyn (1879-1974), also drew on the novel by Anatole France. The film, however, was not considered a success. Evidently between 1911 and 1917 there were five silent movies entitled Thaïs, made in France, Italy, and the U.S.A., yet not all followed the saint's story.[19]

The Thaïs of Chiparus is a bronze and ivory statue depicting a dancing figure, an elegant young woman in 'ancient' dress. It was crafted in France (with a limited production run) during the Art Deco era by the Rumanian artist Demetre Chiparus (1886–1947).[20]

References notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c "Catholic Encyclopedia (1917)". Retrieved 2008-08-03. 
  2. ^ An early modern, scholarly edition of the Vitae Patrum exists, produced by Heribert Rosweyde: De vita et vebis seniorum librix, historiam eremiticam complectentes (Antwerp: Plantin 1615); reprinted in Patrologia Latina, at volumes 73-73.
  3. ^ a b R.H.Robbin Library, Camelot Project.
  4. ^ Donald Attwater (compiler), A Dictionary of Saints (London: Burns and Oates 1938), revised and edited by John Cumming as A New Dictionary of Saints (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press 1994) at 299. This view is based in part on the 1903 essay by Pierre Batiffol.
  5. ^ There was another Thaïs of some notoriety in the ancient world, who lived over six centuries earlier. Of Athens, she traveled to Persia with the campaign of Alexander. Cf., Diodorus of Sicily, his Bibliotheca historica at XVII, 72.
  6. ^ Cf., Attwater & Cumming (compilers, editors), A New Dictionary of Saints (1994) at 299 (feast day of St. Thaïs), and at 6 (Church Calendar). The Calendar was reformed in 1969.
  7. ^ Or the saint Paphnutius the Ascetic.
  8. ^ Attwater & Cumming, A New Dictionary of Saints (1994) at 299 (St. Thaïs), 244 (St. Paphnutius), 54 (St. Bessarion), 285 (St. Serapion).
  9. ^ Cf., Benedicta Ward, Harlots of the Desert. A study of repentance in early monastic sources (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications 1989), which includes modern translations of these Egyptian lives.
  10. ^ Cf., Albert Gayet, Antinoë et les Sépultures de Thaïs et Sérapion (Paris: Societé Française d'Éditions d'Art 1902).
  11. ^ Katherina M. Wilson (translation, introduction), The Dramas of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada: Peregina Publishing Co. 1985), "The Conversion of the Harlot Thaïs" at 92-112, 104.
  12. ^ Wilson (ed., transl.), The Plays of Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (reprint New York: Garland Pub. 1989), "Pafnutius" at 93-122, 112.
  13. ^ Gustave Flaubert, La tentation de Saint Antoine (Paris: Charpentier et Cie 1874), translated as The Temptation of Saint Anthony (Paris: H. S. Nicols 1895).
  14. ^ Anatole France, Thaïs (Paris 1890, revised edition 1921); translated into English: Modern Library 1926; Univ.of Chicago 1976.
  15. ^ Unlike Gustave Flaubert, the modernist Anatole France was skeptical about religion. His novel Thaïs seems to celebrate eros at the expense of transcendent values, taking grim satisfaction in disclosing hypocrisy, yet sympathetic with his character's confused self-understanding. Anatole France had a "liberal slant" combined with "bitter wit, staunch skepticism, and urban cynicism". Jean Asta, "About the author Anatole France" (2012), which introduces an English translation of his novel, "Thaïs" at
  16. ^ Gustave Kobbé, The Complete Opera Book (New York: Putnam 1919, 1935) at 731-736, 735-736 (duet).
  17. ^ Cf., Clair Rowden, Republican Morality and Catholic Tradition in the Opera. Massenet's Hérodiade and Thaïs (Weinsberg: Lucie Galland 2004).
  18. ^ Cf., New York Times February 10, 1911, at page 7 (about the play's trial run in Boston). This modern production follows a millennium after the play about Thaïs by Hrotsvitha (935-1002).
  19. ^ E.g., the Italian film of 1917-1918 entiled Thaïs was about contemporary figures with no apparent relation to the life of St. Thaïs.
  20. ^ Height 21", width 23", depth 7". Art Deco sculpture "Thais" by Chiparus. Retrieved 7 January 2013. It is unclear, however, whether the figure here represents St. Thaïs of Egypt before her converstion (cf., France's novel), or the earlier Thaïs of Ancient Greece.

See also[edit]