Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Feast of St Peter and St Paul

Saint Peter and Saint Paul, have both been depicted, either individually or together, by artists through the centuries. To celebrate their Feast Day today, here is one of those images, painted by Carlo Crivelli (c.1435-c.1495) with a reflection by Sister Wendy Beckett.

"Carlo Crivelli is a distinctive artist. All he paints is hard edged, sharply outlined. It is as if his bodies are hewn from the rock, and the fruit which so often decorates his work (see the apple on the lower right) is carved from marble. This makes for compelling and sometimes disturbing pictures.

There is certainly an element of disturbance here, if we look at the tense veins on St Peter’s hand or the swollen joints of the apostles' feet. What I find so enthralling here though, is a rare touch of comedy. When we read the Acts of the Apostles, we are told how the church developed from its Jewish origins and, with difficulty, came to terms with them. The apostles in Jerusalem were disturbed by the freedom with which St Paul had been baptising the non-circumcised gentiles. Christianity was the predestined development of Judaism, its fulfilment. But, which element of the original covenant were to be preserved and which had lost their force after the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus?

This was a legitimate area of concern and St Luke gives it full weight. There is a so-called "Council of Jerusalem" and an agenda is agreed, the most important item being the non-necessity of circumcision. In St Luke’s account all is sweetness and light, Peter and Paul embrace. However, when we read St Paul’s letters we realise that this peaceable agreement is an oversimplification. All would indeed come right, and Peter and Paul, equally sanctified, would both be martyred in the holy city. In the meantime though, there were difficulties. St Paul minces no words when he writes to the Galatians. "When Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned... fearing the circumcision party. And with him, the rest of the Jews acted insincerely... but when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the Gospel, I said to Cephas before then all ‘if you, though a Jew, live like a gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the gentiles to live like Jews?’"

We can imagine St Peter accepting the rebuff and acknowledging the truth of it. How could St Peter, that great lover of Jesus, not warm to a man who can say "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lies in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."

Crivelli offers us a delightful vignette of these two great apostles, not quite at odds with each other, but not wholly in sympathy either. St Peter is rather distracted searching for a proof in his bible, while St Paul awaits his vindication. They loved each other and worked together for the glory of God, but they were not kindred spirits."

Picture Saints Peter and Paul by Carlo Crivelli © The National Gallery London.
Text from Sister Wendy Contemplates Saint Paul in Art by Sister Wendy Beckett © ST PAULS Publishing.