St Paul and St Barnabas at Lystra by Willem de Poorter

Willem de Poorter

St Paul and St Barnabas at Lystra, 1636, Oil on panel, 54.61 x 80.01 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Art; The Walter H. and Valborg P. Ude Memorial Fund, 2011.13, Minneapolis Institute of Art Open Access

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God, not Gods

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At Lystra, Paul has healed a man crippled from birth, and the residents have hailed him and Barnabas as gods. Willem de Poorter (1608–68) depicts what ensues; we can see the two bearded apostles just to the right of the altar.

There may be a literary reference here to a story (recorded, for instance, by Ovid in Metamorphoses 8.611–724) in which the same pair of gods for whom Paul and Barnabas are mistaken—Mercury and Zeus—visit nearby Phrygia, where they are treated with hospitality by only a single elderly couple, Philemon and Baucis (offering a pagan story with a moral parallel to Hebrews 13:2).

This incident at Lystra became a remarkably popular theme in seventeenth-century Northern European painting. Often, as here, one apostle objects to the attribution of deity with a hand gesture, and the other by rending his clothes. Luke’s account refers to the priest of Zeus bringing ‘oxen and garlands’ (v.13). Those garlands were probably meant for dressing the beasts before sacrifice, but here de Poorter has painted them upon the brow of the priest and his assistants.

Although the identification of Paul with Mercury rested in part on Paul’s easy way with words, the people’s acclamation of Barnabas as Zeus may also offer a flicker of visual information about the two apostles’ appearance relative to each other: perhaps that Barnabas was older, or of more imposing stature than Paul.

Later, the apostles contrast ‘these worthless things’ with ‘the living God’ (Acts 14:15) in a way that may pick up Old Testament polemic against idols (1 Samuel 12:21; Jeremiah 51:18). Thus, they offer a theological critique of the way that artistic image-making may lend itself to the worship of false gods.

The rest of the speech deserves recognition, alongside the better known address at the Areopagus in Acts 17, for directing its hearers to God by pointing to nature and its bounty: alerting them that God has given them ‘rains from heaven and fruitful seasons … filling you with food and your hearts with joy’ (v.17). As Jaroslav Pelikan has pointed out, such recognition and celebration lies behind the development of a great deal of Western art, not least of forms not always seen as religious in inspiration, such as landscape and still life (2006: 165–67).

 

References

Pelikan, Jaroslav. 2006. Acts (London: SCM Press)


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