By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, JUNE 25, 2009 (Zenit.org).- This, the last week of the Year of St. Paul, has seen a flurry of activity as the Holy See prepares to dim the spotlight on the Doctor of the Gentiles. But the question remains, will St. Paul fade to black?
Several of the events surrounding these closing ceremonies are intended to continue the momentum of this grace-filled year. A major art exhibit in the Vatican Museums will continue to draw the faithful, while the Holy See has sent seven envoys to the great nations that hosted St. Paul before his martyrdom in the Eternal City, to emphasize the desire for unity among these peoples of Paul.
The chosen members of the College of the Cardinals have already departed for their destinations: Jerusalem, Malta, Turkey, Greece, Syria and Lebanon, all of which are well known on the world stage, but the little island of Cyprus deserves a special moment of limelight to reflect its important role in the history of Christianity.
The Acts of the Apostles tells us that Paul (at that time still known as Saul) and Barnabas left Antioch for Cyprus in about 45-47 A.D. and began preaching in the synagogues of Salamis on the eastern side of the island.
Despite trials and challenges, one of St. Paul’s first great success stories unfolded on this island. Overcoming the machinations of a local sorcerer, Elymas, Paul converted Roman Proconsul Sergius Paulus to Christianity. As a result, Cyprus became the first territory in the empire to be governed by a Christian.
The site of this watershed event in the history of the Church was on the western side of the island, in the city of Paphos, already world renowned as the first home of the goddess Aphrodite.
Born of the Mediterranean waves, Aphrodite was gently wafted to the shores of Cyprus, and alighting in Paphos, she brought love and beauty to mankind. St. Paul perfected Aphrodite’s gift by revealing Christ’s model of love and incarnational beauty to the Mediterranean gateway of Cyprus.
Upon departing from the island, the Apostle would leave behind his old name of Saul, and take on his new identity as Paul.
Cyprus has long been contested by many different parties, even to the present day. Ancient times saw Cyprus claimed by the Byzantine emperors, Arabs, crusaders, Venetians and Ottoman Turks, but the strong bond to Christianity, part of Paul’s legacy, has marked the island over the years.
Queen Charlotte of Cyprus was forced to abdicate in 1463 in favor of her scheming half brother. She escaped to Rome where she died and was buried in St. Peter’s Basilica. Today, her tomb faces that of Pope John Paul II in the crypt.
Ottoman conquest brought the island under Turkish rule in 1570, but an 1872 census showed that the population remained high in Christians: 100,000 to 44,000 Muslims. This small but significant island has long been proof that the seeds St. Paul sowed in the Mediterranean were both hardy and lasting, and as this year draws to a close, they show no signs of waning.
* * *
At the same time Cardinal Renato Martino left for Cyprus carrying Rome’s message of unity, a special envoy from Cyprus was unveiled in Rome. The icon of St. Nicholas tis Ste’gis was put on display this Wednesday after a long and loving restoration in the expert studios of Rome.
The large, 203 centimeters x 158 centimeters (80 inches x 62 inches), image painted in tempera on wood panel represents St. Nicholas, a particularly beloved saint of both the Eastern and Western Church, flanked by scenes from his life.
It was painted in the late 13th century for the church of St. Nichloas tis Ste’gis in the town Kakopetria, about halfway between the Cypriot capital of Nicosia and the town of Paphos. Today it is kept in the Byzantine Museum of Kakopetria.
The icon was brought to Rome for the delicate restoration after atmospheric elements had damaged the paint, insects had weakened the wood, and vandalism had scraped away the faces of the donors of the panel featured at the feet of the saint.
The alliance between Rome and Cyprus to save this work of sacred art closely mirrors the strong artistic collaboration between the Cypriots and Romans in the Middle Ages.
The panel is painted on a surface primed not only with plaster and linen, but also with a piece of pergamum, or animal skin, fixed to the wood by animal glue. This special technique, developed in Cyprus, helped to preserve the work and was passed onto Italian artists in the Medieval era.
St. Nicholas stands about 6 feet tall, inside a gilt frame of embossed lilies, a common symbol in western art. The precious pigments, lapis lazuli, gold and silver are characteristic of icons, but were regularly exported to Rome. Above his head, Jesus hands St. Nicholas the Gospel while Mary proffers the pallium, the insignia of his office as bishop conferred on him by Christ and the Church.
Side panels recount his life and miracles, but the inclusion of Nicholas’ gift of dowries to poor girls and the resurrection of three murdered priests, reveals a Latin, as well as Eastern influence in the iconography.
The donors are believed to be a noble Latin family, judging by the imperial eagle on the armor of the figure on the right. This work, executed in the years of Western lordship of the island, recount the fruitful collaboration of the Cypriot artists and the Latin patriots to making beautiful images together for the greater glory of God.
The icon will be on display until July 27, 2009, in the National Museum of Piazza Venezia, Tuesdays through Sundays from 8:30 to 7:00.
* * *
The Vatican Museums, magnet for Christians and non-Christians alike, has decided to keep the Pauline fires burning beyond the closing of the Year of St. Paul. Today, the Museums inaugurated a new exhibit titled “St. Paul in the Vatican: The Words and Image of the Apostles of the People in the Pontifical Collections,” which will continue until Sept. 27, 2009.
Housed in the Pio Christian Museum, this exhibit draws together over 120 works from various parts of the papal collections; some come from the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, while other objects were loaned by pontifical universities or the Vatican Library.
Rare manuscripts and ancient images reconstruct both the historical figure of Paul as well as the legacy of his letters across both centuries and continents.
The first section explores the recent and ancient discoveries around the tomb of the Apostle at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. A model of the old church built by Theodosius in the fifth century and the cast of the famous stone slab, placed on the grave of Paul and inscribed with the words, “Paul, Apostle, Martyr” testify to the antiquity of the tradition of Paul’s burial site.
A spectacular sarcophagus from 350 A.D., called the “Dogmatic Sarcophagus” , richly carved with the first image of the Trinity in the world, and found buried next to the tomb of the Apostle, confirms the prestige of Paul’s tomb.
Almost 30 objects explore the development of the iconography of Paul. Vivid watercolors by Monsignor Joseph Wilpert of images from the Roman catacombs, as well as stone sarcophagi reliefs, illustrate how the visage and history of St. Paul were first diffused through the highly visual culture of the Greco-Roman world.
The loveliest artifacts from this section are the gold glass medallions, precious souvenirs for the early pilgrims, with the faces of Peter and Paul etched in gold leaf between the sheets of glass. This iconography of the new Romulus and Remus, co-founders of the new Christian Rome, took off immediately.
The relationship of Peter and Paul is further analyzed in the exhibit by looking at the wealth of images of St. Paul found at the tomb of St. Peter. From the 15th-century ciborium from the Basilica by Paolo Romano showing the beheading of Paul, to the image of Paul on the bronze doors still gracing the church, these works highlight the friendship and unity between the Apostle to the Gentiles and the Prince of the Apostles.
The final section looks at the testimony of the written word. The oldest Christian inscription, the Epitaph of Albercius from the end of the second century, describes the pilgrimage of Bishop of Hieropolis, who used the letters of Paul “as my guide.” Printed versions of the Bible spanning the illuminated manuscripts of Charles the Bald in the ninth century to the most modern version from the Italian bishops’ conference bear witness to the legacy of the written words of St. Paul.
Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible sits by Thomas Aquinas’ commentaries, and Slav, Copt, Arab, Spanish, Chinese and Armenian Gospels illustrate the universality of the letters of St. Paul.
Paul, debtor “to the Greeks and to the barbarians, both to the wise and the unwise” (Romans 1:14), complements the Museums perfectly. The art of the pontifical collection draws people from all backgrounds and faiths, while the exhibit allows Paul to preach again as he once did in the Agora in Athens and the synagogues of Cyprus. The greatest fruit of the Pauline year will be if people continue to listen.
* * *
Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic studies program. She can be reached at email@example.com.