The Papyrus Goleniscev

A while ago, I wrote about a graffito in the Via Paisiello hypogeum that possibly is the only ancient depiction of iconoclasm (it is also shown in the header of this page). There is another illustration, however, that at least alludes to an act of iconoclasm, the so-called Papyrus Goleniscev, one of the happy survivals from the sands of Egypt and named after the Russian collector, who bought the papyri fragments in Giza at the beginning of the 20th century. It was shortly after published by Adolf Bauer and Josef Strzygowski with some excellent colour reproductions of the illustrations that accompany the Greek text. It was probably made in Alexandria in the early fifth century CE.

Papyrus Goleniscev
A fragment of the Papyrus Goleniscev (folio VI verso B). Photo source: Elsner 1998, fig. 162.

One fragment (folio VI verso B) of the manuscript shows a Church official, identified as ‘agios Theophilos’ (‘the holy Theophilos’), who was bishop of Alexandria, symbolically shown on top of a temple, wherein stands a cult statue that can be identified as that of Serapis because of the basket on top of its head, known as a modius.

A statue of Serapis in the Antalya Archaeological Museum. Photo: TMK, August 2003.

The accompanying text describes the events of 391/392 CE, when a Christian mob destroyed Alexandria’s Serapeum. Another fragment (folio VI verso A) has been interpreted as showing monks throwing stones at the temple. Jas Elsner describes the image as “an early example of the kinds of visual polemic (especially against idolaters, pagans, and heretics), which subsequently became prominent in the Byzantine and western iconographic repertoire” (1998: 256). The attack was supposedly carried out in response to new legislation laid out by the anti-pagan emperor Theodosius I in that year (Codex Theodosianus XVI.10.10-12). Similar attacks were carried out in Apamea and Gaza. What is particularly interesting about this illustration is that it shows a Church-sponsored (or even state-sponsored) act of iconoclasm.

The Goleniscev Collection incidentally also includes this fantastic shroud from Egypt, previously in St Petersburg, and now at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, where, unfortunately, it is difficult to get good photographs.

Funeral shroud with painted (“Fayum”) portrait in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. From Egypt. Mid-second century CE. Photo: TMK, July 2003.

Adolf Bauer and Josef Strzygowski. 1906. “Eine alexandrinische Weltchronik, Text und Miniaturen eines griechischen Papyrus der Sammlung W. Goleniščev”. Denkschriften der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-historische Klasse. 51. band. Vienna.
Jas Elsner. 1998. Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: The Art of the Roman Empire, AD 100-450. Oxford.

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1 Comment

  1. I recognized Theophilus instantly! I have just finished my first draft of a historical novel about the destruction of the Serapeion and the triumph of Christianity in Alexandria.

    This came from the research involved in my translation of the Paraphrase of the Gospel of John by Nonnos of Panopolis, written first quarter of the fifth century.

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