Древнейшая икона апостола Павла (слева)
Римский бюст философа Плотина, для сравнения
Portraiture was very widespread in Greek and Roman art. But in Jewish culture, human images were forbidden, and therefore it was unthinkable that Paul and the others would have themselves depicted. It was only later that the Church accepted the depiction of figures of the Christian faith. But how?
Here is the evocative explanation given by Professor Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums and a great art historian, in presenting the exhibition on St. Paul:
"The problem was posed between the 3 and 4 centuries, when a Church that had become widespread and well structured made the great and brilliant wager that is at the basis of our entire artistic history. It accepted and made its own the world of images, and accepted it in the forms in which the Greco-Roman stylistic and iconographic traditions had developed it. It was in this way is that:
- Christ the Good Shepherd took on the appearance of Pheobus Apollo or Orpheus, and
- Daniel in the lion’s den had the appearance of Hercules, the victorious nude athlete.
But how could one represent Peter and Paul, the princes of the apostles, the pillars of the Church, the foundations of the hierarchy and doctrine? Someone got a good idea:
he gave the first apostles the appearance of the first philosophers.
- Paul, bald, bearded, with the serious and focused air of the intellectual, had the appearance of Plato or perhaps of Plotinus,
- while that of Aristotle was given to the pragmatic and worldly Peter, who has the task of guiding the professing and militant Church through the snares of the world."
If this is what happened, then the Church in the early centuries had no reservations about attributing to the apostles, and to Paul in particular, the title of philosopher, nor of handing down, studying, and proclaiming in its entirety his thought, which is certainly not easy to understand and accept.
The same can be said of the Fathers of the Church. In a phase of Christianity in expansion, in a phase in which the transmission of the Christian faith to the Gentiles was in full development, the Church never considered watering down or domesticating its own message in order to make it more acceptable to the men of the time. [Thus the high dependence of many of the Fathers on Platonism in its variious forms.]
The depiction of Paul the philosopher is an eloquent warning to those who today deny relevance to a pope theologian like Benedict XVI, a modern Father of the Church.