Egypt in Italy: Lay devotion to the Desert Father and hermit Onuphrius in Late Medieval Italy

The Thebaid fresco in the Pisan Camposanto. Onuphrius is in the middle band on the right shown talking to Paphnutius. © Manu Radhakrishnan

Manu Radhakrishnan

July 1, 2019 | Manu Radhakrishnan | HI Research Blog |

All  medievalists have heard of saint Anthony and of the sensation caused in the West when Evagrius’s Latin translation of Athanasius’s Greek Life made its appearance sometime before 386 C.E. Augustine while in Milan was informed of the monk and his biography by Ponticianus and it proved to be a turning point in his spiritual crisis and his conversion. Fewer medievalists have heard of the Egyptian hermit and Desert Father Onuphrius who appeared suddenly and silently onto the religious landscape of the Latin West and began to compete with Anthony and give him a run for his money. Onuphrius was, so to speak, the hermits’ hermit. He was, like Jerome’s St Paul, a solitary who unlike Anthony did not require the assistance of humans for his food. In Italy in the fourteenth century, he suddenly became the focus of lay piety. How did he leap from the narrow confines of the hermitage to the open spaces of the piazza? This blog entry will examine the late medieval lay reception of a late antique ascetic figure.

Onuphrius was, like his model St Paul the First Hermit, an imaginary saint. Nevertheless, there is evidence for devotion to him in Egypt as early as the sixth century. His life is the central part of the Peregrinatio Paphnutii, a tripartite travel account of a monk named Paphnutius who left his monastery to go into the Egyptian desert in search of solitaries. In the first part Paphnutius enters the desert and encounters the hermit Timothy who relates how he became a solitary.  When his food runs out, he is miraculously nourished by his guardian angel. He eventually sees a wild hairy beast that he runs away from fearing it will devour him. This turns out to be Onuphrius whose hair had replaced the clothing that had long ago fallen off him. In part two, Onuphrius relates his Life, denies Paphnutius’s request to stay, and orders him instead to return to Egypt and inform the monastic brethren about him and the other solitaries serving God in the desert. He dies the following morning. Paphnutius buries him and finds that his disobedient wish to stay in Onuphrius’s hut is foiled by its collapse along with the palm tree that provided food. In part three, on his way out of the desert he meets four old men and four young men who live as lavriotes. They are solitaries during the week but come together during the weekend to celebrate the Eucharist brought by angels. Paphnutius experiences this with the four young men. Denied permission to stay but reassured by the angel who brings them communion that he is among the saved, Paphnutius reluctantly gives up his aspirations to become a solitary and returns to fulfilling his mission to inform the oecumene, the known world, about the solitaries in the desert. He arrives in Scete and stays with the brethren who write down his account of his travels and distribute it to the churches of the monastic settlements.

This Late Antique account, which resembles a tryptych in which the central and most prominent panel is Onuphrius, is preserved both in Coptic and in Greek manuscripts. It very likely travelled from Egypt to Constantinople before the Islamic conquests and spread from there to the entire Byzantine Commonwealth. It also travelled up the Nile to Lower Nubia where the cathedral at Faras had a fresco depicting him and further south to Ethiopia where it was translated into Ethiopic.

The length of the text made it unwieldy and there are shorter Greek versions of parts one and two and of two alone. The earliest Latin manuscripts of the three-part Peregrinatio Paphnutiana (BHL 6334a) are in Beneventan script from the eleventh century suggesting that the translation was done and initially circulated in southern Italy where there were Greek-speaking monks and where the cult of Onuphrius was already established. It then spread to central and northern Italy where he was unknown and from Italy north of the Alps to Germany and west to Catalonia. MS 433 of the Austrian National Library is a vitas patrum manuscript from south-western Germany dated to the first half of the eleventh century. This contains the shorter version of his Life (BHL 6336) as the very last text. This version would eventually be published in a Nuremberg incunable and then in Rosweyde’s Vitae patrum sive historiae eremiticae libri decem published in Antwerp in 1615. The third edition of 1628 is in Migne’s Patrologia Latina. BHL 6334a remains unedited although I have edited the central portion the Vita Onuphrii from a fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript NY, Morgan Library and Museum, MS M.626, in an appendix to my article in Aevum 2018/2.

In the 1330s, the first monumental depiction of Onuphrius and the Desert Parents of Late Antique Egypt appeared in the lands around the Mediterranean. This was in the Camposanto, the Pisan cemetery next to the cathedral. The Thebaid was part of three scenes depicting as well the Last Judgment and the Triumph of Date. The artist has been, too hastily in my opinion, attributed to Buonamico Buffalmacco. There is no surviving documentation for this unusual indeed unique commission but the Archbishop Simone Saltarelli was a Dominican who naturally had close ties with the Dominican convent of St Catherine of Alexandria. Surviving archival documents show that one of Saltarelli’s collaborators was Domenico Cavalca, OP (d. 1341) who was the most important translator of Latin religious texts into the vernacular for an audience of devout laity in all of medieval Italy. Among these texts was the most extensive and most successful translation into a European vernacular of the Liber Vitaspatrum collection of hagiography from the Late Antique Egyptian desert. Cavalca’s Vita dei santi padri (VSP) was a “best-seller” and survives in 191 copies ranging from partial to complete. All the other vernacular translations had exiguous reception histories and survive in single digits. The popularity of the Italian translation was therefore exceptional.

The Thebaid fresco of the Camposanto, which incorporated inscriptions and verse in the vernacular and thus assumed a lay viewership showed various scenes that could be traced to Cavalca’s VSP. Art historians have therefore concluded that this Dominican was the “auctor intellectualis” of the iconography, the “concepteur” who in conversations with the artist selected the scenes, which the artist then executed. This role had to have been assigned to him by the Archbishop and the cathedral chapter for the Dominicans themselves had no legal rights to make commissions in the Camposanto.

Alessandra Malquori while studying a late fourteenth century fresco depicting Onuphrius at the Dominican convent of S. Maria Novella in Florence (visible on the ceiling of what is now the Tourist Office) noted that its predecessor was Onuphrius in the Camposanto. She raised the problem with the historiography of the Camposanto frescos. If Cavalca’s VSP was the text behind the iconography of the Thebaid fresco, why was Onuphrius there and occupying so much real estate when according to Carlo Delcorno the edition of reference were volumes 1 and 2 of DM Manni’s edition of the Florentine version of the VSP published in 1731 and 1732 which did not contain Onuphrius? Volumes 3 and 4 of 1734 and 1734 did contain Onuphrius but they were not to be attributed to Cavalca.

Delcorno’s 2009 edition of the Pisan form of the text was based on the only fourteenth century manuscript in Pisan to contain all four books of the VSP. This is Rome, Biblioteca Casanatense MS 422 [=RC] dated on the basis of watermarks to 1326. The Life of Onuphrius [=VSO] is present as the last text in book IV of this manuscript and also appears in the Index. Yet it was left out by Delcorno with no explanation for his omission. This manuscript is unusual in that it contains the books in the following order: 3, 4, 1, and 2. The explicit for book IV qui finisce lo qurto libbro de vita padri appears after Onuphrius on f. 127ra at the bottom of column a and book I begins at the top of column b of the same page. In his edition, Delcorno omitted Onuphrius and moved this explicit to the end of the text that preceded Onuphrius. This was the Life of Patrick. Only a reader interested in variants of paratext and curious about the wording of this explicit in other manuscripts will see that in the critical apparatus Delcorno informs us that in RC it actually appears after Onuphrius and not after Patrick. This is the only indication in the edition that the base manuscript contains Onuphrius.

A codicological analysis shows the following. The entry in the index for the VSO was made at the same time and in the same ink as the preceding entry for Patrick. The colour of the ink for the index entries for book I is different showing that it arrived later. The VSO is in the middle of quire IV of RC and therefore cannot be an interloper added later. Its decorated initial F is very similar to other decorated Fs in RC. The beginning and end of book IV are handled in the same way as in book III. Thus a close physical examination of the manuscript shows no signs that the VSO was added later.

An examination of the text of the VSO shows that it stands out in the landscape of vernacular manuscripts detailed and classified by Anna Maria Fagnoni. Of her four groups three have translations of all three parts of the Peregrinatio Paphnutii. The VSO omits part I and provides a highly summarised version of part III. It thus focuses on Onuphrius. These cuts are consistent with Cavalca’s statements on omission in his prologue to the VSP and in the prologues of two of his three other known translations.  Fagnoni had somehow missed RC in her list of vernacular Onuphrius manuscripts. It turns out that her group II, which has the largest number of manuscripts compared to groups I, III, and IV , represents the text present in the VSO. They also reflect a telling change in the incipit. Whereas the VSO in RC began Fue uno sancto abbate ch’ebbe nome Pannutio these begin with Leggesi in vita patrum or Leggesi nella vita dei santi padri. The best explanation for this change is that when Cavalca decided to include it in his VSP, he also sent it as an independent text to his confreres at Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The incipit that made sense in RC no longer made sense for a text that would be copied independently. The Dominicans in Florence therefore changed Cavalca’s original incipit to explain that the VSO was part of the Vita patrum collection.

Finally, the VSO bears stylistic evidence of Cavalca’s quirky praxis as a translator. He prefers adverbial forms and also adds adverbs such as humilmente and patientemente in his vernacular translations even though humiliter and patienter are absent in the Latin originals. He translated “Hec et hijs similia apud sancti patres cum didicissem, ego humillimus Onufrius, multo magis mente et corde recipiens,” as “Quando io Heunofrio molto humilemente ebbi udite queste et simiglianti chose da isti padri, molto malgiolmente li receuetti nella mente et nel chuore.” A comparison with translations from manuscripts in other groups shows that the adverbial form is only present in the VSO and its copies in Group II. This was a tic, one that reveals Cavalca’s stylistic DNA.

Thus codicological, philological, comparative, and artistic evidence all combine to point in one direction. Cavalca was the author of the VSO and it was therefore wrongly left out of Delcorno’s 2009 edition of the Pisan VSP. If RC is the most important witness to Cavalca’s translation of the VSP, the physical evidence of the manuscript alone would necessitate the inclusion of the VSO in the VSP. At the very least omitting a text present in the base manuscript of your edition requires informing the reader and providing ones reasons for the omission. Silence is not really acceptable.

A subsequent analysis will show in detail the Florentine reception of Cavalca’s Vita di sant Onofrio. The Dominicans at S. Maria Novella edited and circulated the text among the Florentine laity thus familiarising them with this hitherto unknown Egyptian desert father. In the 1330s when the Florentine Dyers were seeking a patron saint, their neighbours and spiritual directors the Franciscans at Santa Croce proposed Onuphrius who is presented as a powerful intercessor in the Peregrinatio. Their acceptance heralded the arrival of Onuphrius from the cloister and into the piazza. But it all began with Cavalca’s translation.


Further Reading:

Domenico Cavalca, Vite dei Santi Padri, ed. C. DELCORNO, Firenze 2009 (Archivio Romanzo, 15).

A. M. FAGNONI, Volgarizzamenti italiani della Vita Onufrii. Prime linee di ricerca, in Studi vari di lingua e letteratura italiana in onore di Giuseppe Velli, Milano 2000 (Quaderni di Acme, 41), I, 25-62.

A. MALQUORI, Storie dei padri del deserto nel convento di Santa Maria Novella a Firenze, in Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. Classe di Lettere e Filosofia, ser. 4, 1/2 (1996), 79-93.

Manu RADHAKRISHNAN, An Egyptian Hermit and Italian Laity: Domenico Cavalca, OP (d. 1341) and the Cult of the Desert Father Onuphrius, in Aevum 98.2 (2018), 309-392.