Paul and Barnabas of Cyprus Chosen as Apostles by the Holy Spirit by Ambrosius Francken I

Ambrosius Francken I

Paul and Barnabas of Cyprus Chosen as Apostles by the Holy Spirit, 17th century, Oil on panel, 255.2 x 116.5 cm, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp), The History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

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New Apostles

Commentary by

The Call of the Holy Spirit in Acts 13 is an unusual subject for this painting by Ambrosius Francken I (1544–1618). It is the left-hand part of an altarpiece with three portions (a triptych) all of which have related themes. The larger central panel shows the Last Supper, with the Supper at Emmaus in the right-hand panel.

How are we to make sense of the artist placing the events of Acts 13 alongside these other episodes? The chapter opens with a gathering, with those present ‘worshipping the Lord and fasting’ (v.2). Francken has interpreted this as a Eucharist—a priest to the right of centre stands at an altar wearing a chasuble (the Western Eucharistic vestment). The link is established; this eucharistic gathering is in continuity with the last meal before Christ’s arrest and crucifixion (which every Eucharist recalls), and with the first meal of his risen life.  

The appearance of the Holy Spirit is not shown using the motifs of a dove or flame, as are common in depictions of the Baptism of Christ and Pentecost, but rather with the Divine Name from Exodus (3:14–15) written in Hebrew: the Tetragrammaton, or ‘Name of Four Letters’. This is a strong affirmation of the full divinity of the Holy Spirit, ‘of one being’ with the Father and the Son.

Rays of light rest on Paul and Barnabas in the foreground of the painting, representing both their call and empowerment for the coming mission. The text of Acts 13:2 is written at the bottom right, taken from the Latin Vulgate.

Paul has been placed nearest to the viewer, probably because he features more prominently in later Christian tradition, although the text of Acts 13–14 starts with Barnabas in the leading role. Barnabas is the figure in red, holding a book that is likely to be the Gospel of Matthew, with which he is said by legend to have performed miracles, and to have been buried (Kollmann & Deuse 2007).

This painting shows the choosing of Paul and Barnabas as a form of consecration, mirroring the priest’s gesture of blessing and invocation over the material elements on the altar. As bread and wine are transformed into Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, so Barnabas and Paul are here transformed into his ‘light’ and the bearers of his ‘salvation’ (Acts 13:47).

 

References

Kollmann, Bernd and W. Deuse (eds). 2007. Alexander Monachus: Laudatio Barnabae / Lobrede auf Barnabas (Turnhout: Brepols)


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