Sunday, June 29, 2008

Peter, Paul and Raphael

Raphael, Miraculous Draught of Fishes
Italian, 1515-1516
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Today is an unusual day. It is both a Sunday and the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, the two pillars of the early church. What makes today so special is that for this Sunday the liturgy for the feast of the day, St. Peter and St. Paul, takes precedence over the Sunday liturgy. This illustrates how important these two apostles are for the church. It is also the day on which the special “Year of St. Paul” begins, a year set aside by the Holy Father as a year of special reflection and honor for St. Paul. It promises to be an interesting year.

Paul, as is well known, was initially an opponent of the fledgling Christian movement. He participated in the stoning of St. Stephen, the first to die because of belief in Jesus, and it was while he was traveling to Damascus, to stamp out the followers of the Way in that city, that he was struck down by the light that revealed to him the Person he had been opposing. He went on to spread the Gospel up and down the cities of Roman Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece and the Balkans and, eventually, Rome, where he was beheaded as part of the persecutions under Nero. His burial place lies beneath the basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.

St. Peter, after his denial of Jesus, went on to become the generally recognized leader of the apostles, charged by the Risen Christ to “feed my sheep”. He played a large role in encouraging the acceptance of the non-Jewish converts that Paul made during his travels. He also undertook missionary journeys, eventually also reaching Rome and dying in the same Neronian persecutions. Above his tomb grew the great basilica of St. Peter’s.

Both men arrived in Rome, both died there and both are remembered in great Roman churches. In the early years of the sixteenth century both were remembered in the decorative tapestries, commissioned by Pope Leo X from Raphael, for display in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican Palace. The tapestries were planned to cover the painted draperies that covered the lower walls of the chapel, to complement the cycle of frescoes by Perugino and others that covered the mid-level walls  and to complete (and probably to vie with) the great fresco cycle of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling. The commission was given to Raphael in 1515 and the cartoons were completed between 1516 and 1520. The cartoons are full-scale, detailed and colored sketches which the tapestry weavers could follow to prepare the final, woven cloth.

Raphael, Feed My Sheep
Italian, 1515-1516
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Fortunately, seven out of the ten cartoons in the cycle were preserved, in spite of the tremendous upheaval caused by the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517, the year in which the cartoons were sent north to Brussels to be woven. Eventually they came into the hands of King Charles I of England, a great collector of art. They were also preserved during the English Civil War, in which Charles lost both his crown and his head, and the subsequent Commonwealth period. At the Restoration of Charles’ son, Charles II, they were returned to the English Crown. Though still the property of the Crown, they are on permanent display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Of the seven surviving cartoons, four depict scenes from the lives of St. Peter and three from the life of St. Paul.

Probably the most well-known image is that of the Risen Christ telling St. Peter to “feed my sheep”. This image and that of the “Miraculous Draught of Fishes”, shown at the top left, are unusual in the cycle for being set in open landscape. The majority of the other surviving scenes are set in townscapes. Typical is the image of “St. Paul Preaching in Athens”, shown above. In a claustrophobic, closed urban space, Paul is seen from the side, gesturing to the multitude assembled to hear him. Because of the point of view, our attention is drawn more to the listeners and their reactions than to Paul himself. Most listen intently, some respond with enthusiasm. What Paul is telling them is:  "You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious.
Raphael, St. Paul Preaching in Athens
Italian, 1515-1516
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, 'To an Unknown God.' What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. . . . . . God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now he demands that all people everywhere repent because he has established a day on which he will 'judge the world with justice' through a man he has appointed, and he has provided confirmation for all by raising him from the dead."

When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, "We should like to hear you on this some other time." And so Paul left them. But some did join him, and became believers.” (Acts 17:22-23, 31-34)

© M. Duffy, 2008