The term Thebaid refers to the representation of a rocky landscape in which a group of monks are engaged in various activities related to their life of prayer and asceticism. The term derived from a collection of texts recounting the lives of the saints in the desert, which told of the monks who in the first centuries of Christianity would withdraw to the desert around the Egyptian city of Thebes to pray and live as ascetics. This theme was particularly popular in Florence in the fifteenth century when it was depicted on rectangular panels, and this painting in the Uffizi is the only fully intact example still in existence today. In the landscape, numerous scenes from the legendary lives of various saints, including Saint Onuphrius and Saint Anthony, are alternated with scenes of daily life - the saint drawing water from the well, the saint riding a deer and the group carrying an elder on a stretcher, for example - which outline the monks’ path to ascension. The luxuriant landscape is dominated by a river flowing into the sea and is filled with trees, a metaphor of the spiritual garden where the virtuous ascetics would prosper.
The painting conveys a strong spirituality and the origins of these figurations can be found in the enlightened environment of Florentine monasticism; however, they were also greatly appreciated by laypeople and indeed the Medici family owned two such examples.
The painting exhibited at the Uffizi is thought to be the work of the Dominican friar Fra Angelico, but this attribution is not universally accepted.
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