Sunday, June 28, 2009

Oldest Known Icon of St. Paul Uncovered

From Michael Barber's blog "Singing In the Reign" comes this story from the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano reporting that an icon of St. Paul has been uncovered in excavations being undertaken in the catacombs of St. Thecla, underneath the streets of Rome. See the story and photos here:

The thing that strikes me is how icons and other traditional images of St. Paul (and other New Testament figures, like St. Peter and even Christ) are uncannily consistent compared with other ancient representations of the same person. Icons in the Eastern Orthodox tradition (based in turn on even more ancient traditions) have very strict guidelines how specific persons and stories are represented.

The image of St. Paul above, for example, is how he is always presented in traditional iconograpy. Compare that with the newly uncovered figure and with ancient written descriptions:

We know from Eusebius (Church History VII.18) that even in his time there existed paintings representing Christ and the Apostles Peter and Paul. Paul's features have been preserved in three ancient monuments:
1. A diptych which dates from not later than the fourth century (Lewin, "The Life and Epistles of St. Paul", 1874, frontispiece of Vol. I and Vol. II, 210).
2. A large medallion found in the cemetery of Domitilla, representing the Apostles Peter and Paul (Op. cit., II, 411).
3. A glass dish in the British Museum, depicting the same Apostles (Farrara, "Life and Work of St. Paul", 1891, 896).

We have also the concordant descriptions of the "Acta Pauli et Theclae", of Pseudo-Lucian in Philopatris, of Malalas (Chronogr., x), and of Nicephorus (Hist. eccl., III, 37).

Paul was short of stature; the Pseudo-Chrysostom calls him "the man of three cubits" (anthropos tripechys); he was broad-shouldered, somewhat bald, with slightly aquiline nose, closely-knit eyebrows, thick, greyish beard, fair complexion, and a pleasing and affable manner. He was afflicted with a malady which is difficult to diagnose (cf. Menzies, "St. Paul's Infirmity" in the "Expository Times", July and Sept., 1904), but despite this painful and humiliating infirmity (2 Corinthians 12:7-9; Galatians 4:13-14) and although his bearing was not impressive (2 Corinthians 10:10), Paul must undoubtedly have been possessed of great physical strength to have sustained so long such superhuman labours (2 Corinthians 11:23-29). Pseudo-Chrysostom, "In princip. apostol. Petrum et Paulum" (in P.G., LIX, 494-95), considers that he died at the age of sixty-eight after having served the Lord for thirty-five years.

Source: New Advent Catholic Super-site

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