‘Hypatia’s Window: a pentaptych’ oil on canvas by Sheefali Asija

The F-1 rocket engine used for the first stage of the Saturn V moon rocket which launched the Apollo spacecraft remains to this day the single most powerful single combustion chamber liquid-propellant rocket engine we have ever built -despite being developed over sixty years ago. The power of the F-1 boggles the imagination: each F-1 produced over 680,388 kg of thrust achieved by burning 2,578 kg of propellent per second. And the first stage of the Saturn 5 had 5 F-1 engines together producing the thrust required to get the 110m high launch vehicle weighing 2,970,000 kg to the speed required for the Apollo spacecraft’s journey  1.5 million kilometer journey to th e moon and back. The F-1 represents a pinnacle of humanity’s technological ingenuity – a modern ‘wonder of the world’.

In my pentaptych Hypatia’s Window I have taken as my subject the F-1 Injector Plate. This is the part of the F-1 on top of the engine bell and is what dispersed the propelent into the combustion chamber. I found the similarity between the form of the plate and the Rose windows of Gothic architecture rather striking and was further inspired when I researched Rose Windows and found a powerful connection to one of my heroines: Hypatia (born c. 350–370; died 415 AD) the Hellenistic Neoplatonist philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. 

Hypatia’s shocking death hands of a Christian mob  was ordered, according to some sources, by Bishop Cyril of Alexandria – a man recognised as one of ‘Fathers of the Church’ and ‘Doctors of the Church’. That mob stripped her naked and tore her body to pieces. Thus ended a tradition in the Roman Empire of considering philosophers as effectively untouchable. None of Hypatia’s writings are extant. She was essentially obliterated from history. Cyril was made a saint.

Hypatia’s murder was a historical milestone. A thousand years of Mediterranean-centered European classical culture was in crisis – five years earlier Rome had been sacked by the Visigoths. The European Medieval Period, characterized by a thousand years of relatively minimal scientific progress, was beginning.

The story of Hypatia’s murder is considered by some scholars to have been – in perhaps the ultimate irony – appropriated by Christianity as what appears to be the basis of the story of the Martyrdom of St Catherine. In St Catherine’s story she is a devout Christian and noted scholar who is murdered for her beliefs by pagans. The symbol of the Catherine Wheel is a reference to her (almost) being executed by being ‘broken on the wheel’ as ordered by the furious pagan emperor Justinian (the wheel miraculously broke when it touched Catherine). 

The Rose Windows of gothic architecture  are also refered to as ‘Catherine Windows’ due to their visual similarity with the symbol of Saint Catherine. In my Pentaptych Hypatia’s Window I have sought to re-appropriate the Saint Catherine legend.