Saint Onuphrius: The Iconography

In Egypt, St. Onuphrius the Anchorite. He led the religious life for sixty years in the empty desert and went to Heaven famous for his great virtue and merits. Abbot Paphnutius wrote of his remarkable deeds. – Roman Martyrology for June 12

The life of St. Onophrius is narrated in a memoir by St. Paphnutius the Ascetic. Both men are thought to have been born in the 3rd century. In the memoir, Paphnutius goes into the Egyptian desert thinking that he might wish to live the life of a hermit. After a time he runs out of food and water and continues only by the grace of God.
Then suddenly I saw a man coming to me who looked like a wild beast. He was frightening in appearance, hairy over all of his body, with a skirt of leaves. As he approached me I was seized with terror and feared he might kill me. I ran to the top of a hill, but he went to its base, crouched down…, looked up to me, and said, "Come down to me, most holy man, for I am a man living like you in this desolate solitude for the love of God."1
The man goes on to explain that he has lived as a hermit for sixty years in this desert. Previously he had been in a monastery in the Thebaid with 100 holy brothers, but considering the example of the prophets Elijah and John the Baptist, he decided to take up the life of a hermit. His guardian angel led him to the cave where he was to dwell and has been bringing him a bit of bread and water every evening and the Eucharist on Saturdays and Sundays. Paphnutius stays with Onuphrius a short while until the latter's death, which is attended by the song of angels.

Many Western portraits of St. Onuphrius include the copious hair mentioned by Paphnutius. Orthodox images strive for a greater dignity, reducing the hairiness to just a long beard and retaining the skirt of leaves. The two Onuphrius images I have seen in Venice follow the Orthodox approach.

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2019-03-19.

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St. Onuphrius as depicted among a number of confessors in the 14th-century Spanish Trinity Adored by All Saints.


This is how the saint is usually depicted in Orthodox images – with the leafy skirt mentioned in Paphnutius but without the hair on his body. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)


A 19th-century fresco of St. Onophrius and his guardian angel in the Akeldama Orthodox Monastery in Jerusalem. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

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DATES

  • Feast day: June 12

NAMES

  • The English name "Humphrey" derives from "Onuphrius," as does the Italian Onofrio.

HAGIOGRAPHY

NOTES

1 Acta Sanctorum, June vol. 2, 527-28 (my translation).