The Blinding of Elymas the Sorcerer by Raphael

Unknown English after Raphael

The Blinding of Elymas the Sorcerer, c.1626–36, Woven silk and wool tapestry with gilt-metal and silver-wrapped thread, 510 x 695 cm, The Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 1922, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

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Paul’s First Miracle

Commentary by

In 1515, Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael (1483–1520) to design ten tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, with scenes from the book of Acts. Four relate to Peter and six to Paul. Further sets were later woven from these designs, including ones for Francis I of France, and the English king, Henry VIII.

Between 1626 and 1642, King Charles I of England also had his own set woven at Mortlake following Raphael’s original paper templates (‘cartoons’), seven of which he had succeeded in purchasing in 1623. Raphael’s designs for the borders of the original papal tapestries are not part of the cartoons, so elaborate new borders were devised for Charles by Francis Clein (1582–1658), along with a replacement design for the vertical strip at the right of the tapestry, which is missing from the cartoon. The effects of folding, and bleaching by the sun, have made parts of the tapestry initially difficult to make out, but the power of the composition is undeniable. Clein’s right-hand strip adds extra piquancy as (beneath the statue of a female figure—possibly the pagan goddess Aphrodite) a low-relief scene prefigures Paul’s future martyrdom.

This scene features in the cycle of tapestries both because it shows Paul’s first recorded miracle, and because of the significance of the conversion of a senior Roman political official. It takes place in Paphos, the capital of Barnabas’s home of Cyprus, and centre of the cult of Aphrodite.

The proconsul, Sergius Paulus, is seated in the centre. ‘An intelligent man’ (Acts 13:7), he has summoned the apostles to hear their message. A Jewish magician, Elymas or Bar-Jesus, has opposed them. ‘Filled with the Holy Spirit’, Paul has denounced Elymas and told him that he will be blinded for a period. Paul is shown prominently at the front of the design, with his hand extended towards Elymas. Elymas, in turn, is seen ‘groping for someone to lead him by the hand’ (v.11). Barnabas is not clearly indicated. He may be immediately to the right of Paul, partly obscured by a column.

Paul, who earlier in the sequence of Raphael’s designs had himself been struck blind, is now the clear-sighted counterpoint to the sorcerer who tried to blind others to the truth of the apostle’s preaching.

A king like Charles might have related to the proconsul at the centre of the composition: a man of authority, charged with the responsibilities of high office, who is able to discern and embrace the true faith. Yet he, like Paul, will one day face martyrdom.

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