I love the book of Acts. I also love and study Greek history, thought, religion, and language. Naturally, Acts 17 stands out as a passage of import to those who love to think about the New Testament and the Hellenistic world.
I also have an untutored fondness of Renaissance art. I claim no expertise in the way of the Renaissance masters, and can only identify the works of a few. One work I shamelessly enjoy (“shamelessly” because one gets sheepish about one’s cultured fancies when they are ubiquitous in pop culture) is Raphael’s School of Athens. I enjoy it enough to have a large print of it hanging on my living room wall. Sometimes I look at it (as one does). I admire the figure of Da Vinci-as-Plato, pointing upwards into the world of the forms holding the Timaeus, at Aristotle, hand outstretched downwards at the “real” world, holding the Ethics; at Diogenes the Cynic lying on the steps; at Raphael himself tucked away in the lower right corner; at the mathematicians flanking the left and right lower side, surrounded by their students; at Socrates doubtlessly leading some poor souls in one of his famous dialogues to the left of Plato.
But does my love for the book of Acts and study of Paul have anything directly to do with this beautiful piece? I used to lament “no,” but now I’m not so sure.
See, recently, a figure caught my eye who had not before. I was not studying
the piece, I was mindlessly glancing in its direction. But there, below the
statue of the great Athena, stands a figure. Regal in stature, cloaked in red,
slightly balding, and, if I may say, standing out a little from the pack
(taller than the others, with a gap on either side of him). At once I thought–“this is St. Paul!” Sure, he looks older than the Paul depicted in other pieces by Raphael, but those other pieces depict Paul according to the historical narratives about him (e.g., “Paul and Barnabas at Lystra”), but this
is an idealized scene bringing together in one setting people who lived
centuries (even millennia) apart.
Could the figure I see be Paul? I know enough about the piece to know that
Paul is rarely if ever identified as any character–and never as the one who
jumped out at me. Yet I decided to search these terms, and came across a
curiosity in the tradition of this art: a sixteenth century engraving of the
same piece by Giorgio Ghisi entitled St Paul in the School of Athens!
What’s more, where on pictures of /prints the original you find the top of one of the doors of the Stanza della Segnatura, on this engraving is found, in
Latin, a description of Paul’s speech in Acts 17 with reference to that very chapter. Here is a the inscription:
“Paul in Athens, brought by the Epicurean and Stoic Philosophers to the Areopagus, standing in the middle of the hill. Taking the opportunity from an altar he had seen, he teaches of the one great, true God, unknown to them. He censures idolatry and exhorts them to repentance. He also teaches of both the day of universal judgment and the resurrection of the dead through the reborn Christ. Acts XVII”
So this then was some sense of affirmation. Here is the full, beautiful engraving:
Yet I needed to do more searching. In 1985, the Metropolitan Museum of Art published a book entitled The Engravings of Giorgio Ghisi, which is an introduction to the artist complete with a catalogue of his drawings, paintings, and engravings, with commentaries/notes on each. They curiously do not title the work after the title found on the engraving, but simply title it The School of Athens. However, the full name is found not only on the original published engraving, but also in its official cataloguing in the Dyce collection: [DYCE COLLECTION. A Catalogue of the Paintings, Miniatures, Drawings, Engravings, Rings and Miscellaneous Objects Bequeathed by The Reverend Alexander Dyce. London : South Kensington Museum : Printed by G.E. Eyre and W. Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., 1874.] page 165: “St. Paul in the School of Athens. After Rafaello. On two sheets.”
This strange omission aside, they cannot avoid comment on the inscription:
“It is also not known who provided the inscription, which is a summary of Acts, chap. XVII, identifying the scene as St. Paul preaching in Athens. Possibly Cock believed that this is what the scene represented, or possible the inscription was added to render accessible to a potential purchaser a subject that otherwise might have had little meaning.”
Boorsch, Suzanne, Michal Lewis, and R. E. Lewis, Engravings of Ghisi, (1985) page 63.
Yes, perhaps it was the publisher, Hieronymous Cock (the rather dismissive comment aside). Or perhaps it was Ghisi? And perhaps there is some tradition somewhere that does locate Paul more definitively than not. Given its provenance as Christian art, it would not be surprising. Perhaps the figure who jumped out at me is the very one in the mind of Cock, Ghisi, or even Raphael?
It is not too hard to find representations of Paul that look something like these.
Obviously, this is rank and perhaps implausible speculation.
The subjectivity of art, perhaps?
What do you think?