St. Thecla and the Art of Her Pilgrims Towards an Autonomous Feminine Aesthetic Praxis

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Sabrina C. Higgins



This article examines the role of women in the promulgation of the Cult of Thecla in late-antique Egypt, particularly through their use and adaptation of her iconography. Through a contextualization of the material remains, this study addresses the ways in which devotion to Thecla was expressed in the visual culture associated with her cult, both within the constructs of sanctioned religious practice and individual veneration. In doing so, we highlight the various avenues of devotion to Thecla and the iconography that emerges from these diverging frameworks. More specifically, we examine the ways in which private female practices of devotion transgress official forms of iconography, relying on a comparative analysis of the images proliferated at pilgrimage sites associated with her cult (i.e. tokens), which stand in contrast to those that appear in the context of private female devotion (i.e. funerary stelae/tombs). While common iconographic themes appear across devotional contexts, such an approach necessitates a gendered analysis of this material, underscoring the prevalence of attendant male saints in the material culture associated with pilgrimage shrines—especially St. Menas—and the independent manifestations of Thecla within a milieu of private female veneration. This article ultimately argues, therefore, for an autonomous feminine aesthetic praxis amongst female devotees, providing an artistic avenue for imitation and subsequent empowerment of women in late-antique Egypt.



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