Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The Legend of St Onuphrius

In the Byzantine Rite, today is the feast of a 4th century Egyptian desert father called Onuphrius; he is also found on some late medieval Western calendars, mostly in Spain, and usually a day or two earlier. His life was written one of several biographies of the early ascetics written by another Saint called Paphnutius, and bears an unmistakable resemblance to two other great classics of the genre, St Jerome’s life of St Paul the First Hermit, and the story of St Mary of Egypt.

An icon of St Onuphrius, 1662, by the Greek painter Emmanuel Tzanes (1610-90).
Paphnutius went into the desert to acquaint himself with the ways of the hermits, and discern whether he was called to embrace their life. After sixteen days, he encountered a wild-looking creature covered in his own hair (like St Mary) and a loincloth of leaves. (The latter suggests a motif of early monastic literature, that the ascetics had in some sense returned to the Paradise from which Adam was expelled.) At first, he was so frightened by the sight that he ran away, but the man called him out to him, proclaiming that he was a hermit living in the desert for the love of God. He then introduced himself by his name, Onuphrius, and explained that he had once lived in a great monastery in the region of Thebes, but had then become a hermit, led by his own guardian angel out into the desert, where he suffered greatly from hunger and thirst, heat, and was beset by many violent temptations (much like Anthony.) Like St Paul, his food was provided principally by a date palm.

Onuphrius then led Paphnutius to a cave which served as his cell, where they spent the day in conversation. At sunset, the traditional time for breaking the daily fast, bread and water appeared miraculously before them, much as the daily ration of bread was miraculously brought to St Paul by crows was doubled at the coming of St Anthony. After spending the night in prayer together, in the morning, Paphnutius was very saddened to see that Onuphrius was clearly about to die, again, just as Paul died almost immediately after being visited by Anthony. But Onuphrius revealed to him that he had been sent by the Lord to bury him, and further, in reply to a suggestion of Paphnutius that he take Onuphrius’ place, that this was not the Lord’s will. Then, commending himself to the prayers of the faithful, he blessed his guest, prostrated himself, and died.

Ss Benedict and Onuphrius, ca. 1410, by the Catalan painter Pere Vall.
Just as Anthony could find no means to dig a hole for Paul’s burial (which duty was miraculously performed by lions), Paphnutius could not dig the hard, rocky ground, so he wrapped Onuphrius’ body in a cloak and placed him in a cleft among the rocks, which he covered over with stones. As soon as the burial was accomplished, the walls of Onuphrius’ cave collapsed, and the date palm withered away, which confirmed to Paphnutius that he was not meant to stay in that place.

Although his feast is not very widespread in the West, Onuphrius is represented surprisingly well and widely in art. This may have something to do with his similarity to another popular figure in Western art, that of the Wild Man, who often appears in the marginal decorations of books of Hours. Onuphrius also has a church on the Janiculum hill in Rome (famous as the place where a celebrated poet called Torquato Tasso died in 1595.) He also appears in a large fresco of the desert fathers in the great monumental cemetery next to the cathedral of Pisa, known as the Camposanto (holy field), although this was severely damaged by a bomb during World War II.

The Thebaid, ca. 1336, by Buonamico di Buffalmacco. The legend of St Onuphrius is depicted in the upper left section, with St Mary of Egypt directly underneath. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0)

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