It’s said that the Blessed Virgin Mary is the most depicted person in art in human history.
Other holy personages are similarly the subject of more modern genres of art including novels, theater and film. I think it’s wonderful that a Catholic saint inspires secular artists — as in the case of Mark Twain, who was taken with stories of St. Joan of Arc and made her the subject of his fascinating novel Personal Recollections of St. Joan of Arc. Though it can hardly be said that Twain admired Catholics or the Catholic Church, he held St. Joan in the highest regard and treated her respectfully in his work and in everyday contemplation.
Such are the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit.
Another such case of a Catholic saint who made her splash in the arts and held up as a moral tale was that of St. Thaïs (pronounced “thigh-ees”).
Thaïs was a repentant courtesan in fourth-century Roman Alexandria. She is one of the Egyptian Desert Mothers and a contemporary of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Her feast day is Oct. 8.
Two hagiographic accounts of her life exist. The first, is a fifth-century Greek document which Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Little) translated into Latin in the sixth-century entitled Vita Thaisis (The Life of Thaïs.)
The second is written in Latin by Marbod of Rennes (d. 1123).
St. Thaïs also appears in the lives of the Egyptian desert saints and hermits which were collected in the Vitae Patrum (Lives of the Desert Fathers).
The various stories of her life all agree that she was of unparalleled beauty and unprincipled wealth and unrepentant immorality due to her profession ― the oldest profession.
However, when she witnesses Christians giving away all that they have for the sake of the poor including their jewels and makeup, she becomes fascinated by this new religion and makes inquiries about it.
Thaïs eventually converts. It was then that a monk, in his belated desire to convert her to Christ, disguises himself as a “customer” and pays for entry into her chambers.
Conflicting sources suggest that the monk was either 1) St. Paphnutius (Bishop in Upper Thebaïd), 2) St. Bessarion (one of St. Anthony of Egypt’s student) or possibly 3) St. Serapion (a bishop in the Nile Delta).
However, to his surprise, the monk-in-disguise finds her uninterested in her former profession. The monk asked as to what changed her mind. Thaïs tells her that she now believes that Jesus is the Savior of the World.
The monk then sits down to catechize her and prepare her for Baptism.
Stricken in grief over a lifetime of sin, Thaïs burns all of her clothes and other riches and begs the monk to become a cloistered nun in the desert.
The monk takes her to a hermit’s cell in the desert where she is provisioned for three years, living a life of prayer and penance. At the end of three years, she leaves the cell and joins a nearby community of nuns for 15 days and then dies.
This conversion of heart story struck a sympathetic cord throughout Christendom
In the 10th century, Abbess Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (935-1002), a Benedictine Canoness of Saxony (northwest Germany), pens a Latin play in Thaïs honor entitled, Paphnutius―the Bishop in Upper Thebaïd, who might be the monk who confronts the courtesan. In it, St. Paphnutius addressing the abbess of the desert says about 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.
Because of this play, devotion to St. Thaïs became widespread throughout Europe.
The modern era hasn’t been as kind to St. Thaïs portraying the monk who comes to her aid as being smitten by her and losing his faith in the process.
Anatole France (1844-1924) novel Thaïs was published at Paris in 1891 was subsequently translated into 18 languages. He twists the story for his own anti-religious purposes which shares little in common with the saint’s holy conversion. In France’s version, the monk’s name is Paphnuce, who pretends to be a customer to meet Thaïs and convinces her to become a Christian and a nun. Upon returning to his desert monastery, Paphnuce finds himself obsessed by her.
Once her leaving her cell three years later and as she lays dying she is granted a vision of Heaven which awaits her. Paphnuce comes to her side and tells her that her faith is only an illusion and that he loves her ― apparently not enough to encourage her to enter into the embrace of her Redeemer and Creator but, “love,” after a sense.
Jules Massenet's (1842–1912) opera entitled Thaïs was first performed March 16, 1894, at the Opéra Garnier in Paris. Louis Gallet (1835–1898) wrote the prose libretto which he derived from France’s novel. However, the opera lacks the cynical look at religion which typifies the novel. Massenet changed the monk’s name to Athanaël who is shown to be a pious but flawed man. The opera compares and contrast Thaïs’ rising faith and ardor for Christ and monk’s growing obsession.
Paul Wilstach's 1911 play Thais wasn’t well-received in part, no doubt, because it relied upon the same hackneyed retelling of France’s disrespectful novel. It ran for 31 performances at the Criterion Theatre in London, March 14 through April 1911 and starred Constance Collier (1878–1955) as the saint and Tyrone Power, Sr. (1869–1931) as the monk.
Not to be outdone, Samuel Goldwyn (1879–1974), tried his hand at reviving this tired, anti-Christian theme in his eponymous film Thais. It too was based on Anatole France’s novel. It also was a commercial failure.
Five other unremarkable silent movies entitled Thaïs were filmed between 1911 and 1917 made in France, Italy and America. Some followed the events in the saint’s life. Some didn’t.
But probably the worst and least necessary transformation into something completely unrecognizable from St. Thaïs’ original Christian hagiography was in Nalo Hopkinson's 2003 The Salt Roads. The story is so convoluted that it’s simply not worth the trouble to bother explaining anything about it herein. Suffice it to say, it’s neither Christian nor intelligible.
St. Thaïs deserves better than the treatments she’s received ever since Abbess Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim wrote of the saint. The enemies of the Church have sought to degrade her story and the general Christian message while promoting a false narrative about the faux-freedom offered by anti-Christian secular world. St. Thaïs was simply an easy target. We should pray for her detractors and continually present this amazing saint as a model for our broken world.
However, not all is lost. Christ and His followers have always inspired good art in the past two millennia. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Ring and The Silmarillion come immediately to mind. Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1972 Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Karen Blixen’s 1987 Babette’s Feast, Ann Clare Booth Luce’s 1949 Come to the Stable and Vittorio de Sico’s 1947 Bicycle Thieves are all outstanding contributions to the field of art and great opportunities for Christians to evangelize.
Most importantly, I believe that the travesty which has overtook St. Thaïs in how she’s been portrayed in art should be a wake-up call for all Christians. The “anti-Church,” as the St. Pope John Paul the Great called it, is insidious, dangerous and unrelenting. Let’s challenge each and every move the Enemy makes, for no other reason than to show them we’re watching.
As John Start Mill reminds us, “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
The question remains, “What will you do to challenge the anti-Church?”