Friday, May 9, 2008

Feed My Sheep

Those of us who followed the events of April 2005 heard the text of today’s Gospel, John 21:15-19, read at both the Masses celebrated for the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI.

“After Jesus had revealed himself to his disciples and eaten breakfast with them, he said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

He then said to Simon Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”
This dramatic scene, set on the shores of Galilee, brings together many elements. The risen Lord confronts Simon Peter with a repeated question: “Do you love me?” This is the very same Simon who, in his impetuosity and devotion had responded to a previous question “Who do you say that I am?” with the impetuous “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God” (Matthew, 16:15-16). He is the man who tried to walk on water to reach out to Jesus. But he is also the man who, in his fears and hesitations began to sick amid the waves and, on that final night, denied three times that he knew the man.

The three-fold question of Jesus in this Gospel has often been noted as a reflection of the three denials. The Lord is giving Simon the chance to erase each of those denials with an affirmation “you know I love you”. And, in exchange for these affirmations forgiveness for his betrayal is freely given, and more, Jesus reiterates his delegation of authority and duty to Peter, not only is he to be the rock, with the power to open or close the gates of Heaven, he is to feed and tend the sheep and the lambs. The Good Shepherd is commending His flock to Peter before His Ascension.

This dramatic moment does not seem to have been a favored topic in western art. This seems a bit surprising, since it refers back to the image of the Good Shepherd, which has been extremely popular from the catacombs to the present day. The main image that comes to mind is the beautiful one created by Raphael for one of a set of ten tapestries with subjects from the lives of Sts. Peter and Paul that were ordered by Pope Leo X (Medici) shortly after his election as Pope. They were intended to hang on the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel, covering up the (by then) old-fashioned frescos by Botticelli and Perugino that still adore them. The commission was given to Raphael in 1515 and he had completed the full scale designs by the following year. These were sent to Flanders, which was then the premiere location for tapestry weaving in Europe, and several sets of tapestries were woven from them. One set is currently in the Vatican Museum. The original full-scale designs, called cartoons, were sent back to Rome from Flanders. There they remained for about 100 years. In the early seventeenth century they were sold to King Charles I of England. Charles was an art connoisseur and a great collector. Unfortunately, Charles was also a stubborn man whose love of a dignified worship service and whose political actions and attitudes roused the ire of his Puritan subjects. Their disagreements resulted in the English Civil War of 1641-1649. The royalist side lost the war and Charles was captured, tried for treason and executed. The majority of his large art collection was sold off at bargain prices. However, the Raphael tapestry cartoons were not among the items placed for sale. They remained in the possession of the Commonwealth until the Restoration of 1661, at which time they were returned to the Royal Collection. After several more centuries of wandering, they were given on loan by Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, to the newly founded museum that bears their names, the Victoria and Albert Museum, where they remain today.

Raphael’s tapestry designs recall his work in the earliest of the great stanze of the papal palace, the Stanza della Segnatura. This room, along with its sister stanze and the Sistine Chapel, are undoubtedly the primary jewels of the Vatican Museums. The stories in the designs are clearly readable, unlike some of the stories in the later stanze, and represent Raphael at the height of his career and confidence. In the design illustrating the reading for today’s Mass, for example, we can clearly read the shores and landscape of the sea of Galilee, the group of disciples, the figure of Peter, shown holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19), and Jesus, who points to Peter with his left hand and to a flock of sheep with his right. These directions would have been reversed in the actual tapestry, due to the fact that, although the cartoons were viewed from the front by the weavers, tapestry was always worked from the back, resulting in a reversed image.