See the Faith: Sts. Peter and Paul

   The features of St. Peter and St. Paul depicted in each of these four images adhere to some basic principles. Clearly each was intended to stay faithful to some other image, producing a trail of images leading to the first portrait of these holy men. The faces of the princes of the apostles were especially important to artists, so they kept true to the prototype. St. Peter has a full head of curly hair, a short beard, and a strong countenance. St. Paul is slightly more haggard looking, balding on top with a tuft of hair on the forehead, and a long straggly beard. That such an important figure as St. Paul was presented in such a modest manner while touted intellectually speaks eloquently to the esteem held for fidelity to appearance. Nevertheless, in the full-length images slight stylizations are seen. In proper iconic style, the eyes, ears, and nose are all prominent. “This is to emphasize the saintly qualities of temperance and humility, indicating that the saint listens and considers information received before acting” (Clayton, 2006, p.57).

   The medallion of the saints from the third century tells even more of the story of these princes. Certainly the saints had the quality of receptivity, but that did not stop them from confronting each other. Paul wrote about a conflict he had with Peter in his letter to the Galatians, “When Cephas came to Antioch, then I did oppose him to his face since he was manifestly in the wrong” (Gal 2:11). Paul exercised one of the of the highest forms of friendship, “Better open reproof than feigned love. Trustworthy are blows from a friend” (Prov 27:5-6). The medallion displays a hint of this less than peaceful friendship, as they intently gaze at each other. This medal is one of many faithful images of the early times.

There is no doubt, for instance, that the likenesses of SS. Peter and Paul have been carefully preserved in Rome ever since their lifetime, and that they were familiar to every one, even to school-children. These portraits have come down to us by scores. They are painted in the cubiculi of the catacombs, engraved in gold leaf in the so-called vetri cemeteriali, cast in bronze, hammered in silver or copper, and designed in mosaic (Lanciani, 2007, 212).

   A 14th century embroidered burse also holds faithfully to the likenesses of these two saints, the prototype still copied more than 10 centuries later. The image is carefully stitched into the receptacle for a corporal, the cloth which rests under the host for the sake of reverence. It is fitting then that the two most prominent apostles and evangelizers would cover this means of reverence. This image would have been seen for the most part by the priest celebrating the liturgy, and it was fitting for him in the person of Christ the head to be reminded of Peter and Paul. In St. Paul’s words, a priest would recall, “Take me as your pattern, just as I take Christ for mine” (1 Cor 11:1). For the artist, not only were the ideas of the saints important, but so were their actual likenesses. One sees not only their faces, but also their symbols, established by tradition. The artist created an eminent relatability to real persons who actually existed and were to be imitated.

   Greek iconographers were also representing SS. Peter and Paul in the 14th century. They made use of symbols to aid recognition of the saint, while still adhering to the likeness of the saint passed on in other pieces. In the Greek icon, Peter is shown with keys and a scroll, references to Christ entrusting the keys of the kingdom to him and his letters in the canon of scripture (cf. Matt 16:19). Paul, who carried the gospel to the known world, is shown holding the book of the gospels. In western religious imagery, Paul often has the additional symbol of a sword, his instrument of persecution that became the instrument of his martyrdom. This slight disparity of symbolism reflects the separation of the Church in the west and east, “her two lungs” (John Paul II, 1995, p.54).

   Two centuries later in the Balkans, the prototype still persists. The icon shows Sts. Peter and Paul embracing, “greet[ing] one another with a holy kiss” (Rom 16:16). This is the other side of the coin from the first image above. While the apostles confronted each other, they undoubtedly saw one another as brothers in Christ, working for the spread of the same kingdom. In the way they are represented, SS. Peter and Paul stand for two important influences on the Church. Peter’s hair and beard is worn in a short-cropped Roman style made popular by the emperor Hadrian less than half a century after Peter’s death (cf. Conway, 1914,  p.346). Later Christians would recognize this as indicative of the influence of Rome on the development of the Church and the magisterial dignity of St. Peter. Paul’s high forehead and beard indicated great wisdom. “In Greco-Roman antiquity the beard was seen as the defining characteristic of the philosopher; philosophers had to have beards, and anyone with a beard was assumed to be a philosopher” (Sellars, 2003, p.15). Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, was also seen as a great Christian philosopher according to artistic standards. He even held his own among the Stoics and Epicureans of Athens (Acts 17:18). The beards of Peter and Paul found in their images indicate manliness. Clement of Alexandria, a second century theologian, held beards in high esteem, “This, then, [is] the mark of the man, the beard, by which he is seen to be a man” (Clement).

   In the wide expanse of time the first Christian artists found it necessary to portray the Princes of the Apostles accurately, and those artists were respected sufficiently to be copied down the centuries. Today as throughout Christian tradition, these saints ought to be depicted to communicate the sanctity of Peter and Paul, to hold them up as models, and to tell their stories.

Works Cited

Clayton, David (2006): ‘The Stylistic Elements of Icons’, Module 1 Reader. Maryvale. pp. 57-59.

Clement of Alexandria (2nd Century): The Instructor, Book 3, Chapter 3 [online]

Conway, A. E. (1914): ‘An Unrecognized Head of Constantine the Great’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 25, No. 138 (Sep., 1914), pp. 346-347+349.

Lanciani, Rodolfo (2007): Pagan and Christian Rome. [ebook]

Sellars, John (2003): The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

The New Jerusalem Bible, Study Edition. (1994): Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd.


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