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THE EARLIEST DEPICTIONS OF SAINT ANIANUS, THE SECOND PATRIARCH OF THE CHURCH OF ALEXANDRIA, AND WHAT THEY TELL US

November 25, 2017

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Figure 1: The Healing of Anianus by Mark

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Figure 2: The Baptism of Anianus (along with two others, probably his sons) by Mark

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Figure 3: The Ordination of Anianus by Mark

Saint Anianus (or Ananius) was the first convert of Saint Mark the Evangelist when he came to Alexandria in the AD 48.[1]  Anianus was a pagan, Egyptian cobbler. When Mark entered the city, the straps of his sandals broke. He went to Anianus to mend it for him. As Anianus was fixing it, he pierced his finger with an awl. Struck by the pain, he cried in Greek, which was the common vernacular in Alexandria, “heis theos”, which means ‘God is one”. Mark healed Anianus’ hand, and Anianus invited Mark to his home for a meal. There the two conversed on matters religious, and Mark talked to Anianus about Jesus Christ. As a consequence, Anianus along with his household and many neighbours, believed; and Mark duly baptised them.

When the pagans of the city heard of the news, they became indignant and designed to kill Mark. Consequently, Mark escaped, and left Alexandria, but not before consecrating Anianus as bishop of Alexandria.[2] Saint Mark ordained also three presbyters (Milaius, Sabinus and Credo) and eleven others for other positions, mostly deacons. Saint Anianus is considered by the Coptic Church to be the second bishop of Alexandria after Saint Mark.[3]

The so-called Grado Chair, which the reader can read more about in my previous article “The Beautiful Coptic Ivories of the so-called Grado Chair,” had three of its fourteen ivories in which both Saints Mark and Anianus feature. All three are kept in Milan, Italy (at Civiche Raccolte d’Arte Applicata—Castello Sforzesco, Milan). The ivories are dedicated to show the healing of Anianus; the baptism of Anianus and his household; and the consecration of Anianus. These ivories were made in Alexandria and taken to Italy by Emperor Heraclius after his has wrestled Egypt from the Persians in AD 629. These are probably the only pieces of art from that age in which Saint Anianus is featured.

The reader can read a lot about Alexandria in these ivories; and understand many things about Saint Anianus. In the first ivory (Fig. 1), Anianus is depicted in his little workshop sitting on a stool and with a workbox in front of him. His work tools are also shown, including straight and undulating awls. The magnificent architecture of Alexandria is shown in the background. Anianus was a poor artisan, clearly shown from his small workshop and the short sleeveless tunic, probably made of cotton or linen. He wears no other garment. In the second ivory (Fig. 2), Anianus, together with two others who look like him and most probably his sons, are shown baptised by Mark in running water, and against Alexandrian backdrop of buildings. The three are naked and Mark, barefooted, is using his right hand to immerse Anianus in the water (in his left hand, he holds the Bible). In the third ivory (Fig. 3), Saint Mark ordains Anianus bishop by the laying of both of his hands. Anianus, here, wears an ecclesiastical vestment which is composed of long-sleeved garment that reaches his heels and covered with a robe.

But what struck me in the three ivories of Saint Anianus is how the artist depicted him as a sort man compared to Saint Mark. In Fig. 1, Anianus is sitting on the stools but his feet cannot reach the ground. In Fig. 2, he and his sons also look short; and again, in Fig. 3, he is shown short with his head, even if raised up, barely reaching the lower chest of Mark. The spectators, probably from Anianus’ family, are also shown short. Saint Mark is not extraordinarily tall – he is shown in the other ivories standing with other people and he is of average height (see the ivory titled: Saint Mark Preaching). The discrepancy in height between Mark and Anianus cannot, also, be due to an attempt by the artist to keep their relative position in Church depicted in size: Christ, in the ivory titled “Raising Lazarus”, for example, is shown of same height as Mary.

It seems that Saint Anianus and his household were all of short stature. There is no discrepancy in the length of legs and trunk in these ivories, so, it is unlikely that the short stature was due to any skeletal disease. It was what clinicians call familial, genetic short stature.

Does this matter? Of course it doesn’t matter that Saint Athanasius was short. It, however, makes him more realistic to us. Anyway, it is a matter which cannot be passed by without noticing by anybody who studies old art, and tries to learn much from it beyond the obvious.

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[1] According to the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church attributed to Severus of Ashmunein, which dates it to the fifteenth year after the Ascention of Christ. Eusebius of Caesarea in his History of the Church gives the year as AD 43 (the third year of the reign of Emperor Claudius).

[2] In AD 68, Saint Mark again returned to Alexandria, where he was martyred in the same year.

[3] For more, read: Stephen J. Davis, The Early Coptic Papacy, the Egyptian Church and its Leadership in Late Antiquity (Cairo, New York, 2004); pp. 10-15.

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