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Consecration of St Augustine by Jaime Huguet
Good Shepherd by Unknown artist [Syria]
The Repentant St Peter by El Greco

Jaime Huguet

Consecration of St Augustine, c.1463–70s, Tempera, stucco reliefs, and gold leaf on wood, 250 x 193 x 9.5 cm, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya; Purchased 1927, 024140-000, Scala / Art Resource, NY

Unknown artist [Syria]

Good Shepherd, 3rd–4th century, Marble, 61 x 39.5 x 16.5 cm (sculpture only); 74.5 x 35 x 25 cm (sculpture with stone base), The British Museum, London; Donated by Lt-Col Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson, 1919,1213.1, © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

El Greco

The Repentant St Peter, After 1605, Oil on canvas, 93.7 x 75.2 cm, The Phillips Collection; Acquired 1922, Album / Art Resource, NY

Leadership in Counterpoint

Comparative Commentary by

1 Peter 5 is addressed to the ‘elders’ (presbyterous), and is full of sobering but hope-filled advice. The focus moves back and forth, from the daily life of the flock, always at the mercy of the ravenous beasts, to an eternal perspective, the pastures of God’s love, to which the elders are guiding their charges.

The three works chosen to interact with this chapter show aspects of the leadership that is being described. The third-century carving of the Good Shepherd from what is today Iraq picks up on one of the images that Jesus regularly applies to himself, directly and indirectly—perhaps most famously in the parable of the Good Shepherd (John 10). The carving exudes strength, peace, and even joy, in the easy relationship between shepherd and sheep; the sheep trusts the shepherd’s hold, and its confidence means that it does not struggle against the shepherd, but allows itself to be held securely with one hand. Even those of us who have never held a sheep can feel the weight of it on those strong shoulders, and can imagine the sense of satisfaction as sheep and shepherd co-operate.

Jaime Huguet’s painting of Augustine’s consecration, on the other hand, suggests how much the conditions under which Christian leadership is exercised have changed from what 1 Peter outlines. The artist seems to revel in the colours and shapes of the vestments, and the challenge of representing all the officiating bishops clustered around Augustine, who is now joining what is clearly an important and influential company. 1 Peter warns against entering into leadership for financial gain or for the love of power. But by Huguet’s time, power is an assumed part of the role of a bishop, and embroidery and jewels signal authority.

The kind of leader Huguet paints is wearing robes appropriate to one who is part of the hierarchical structures of society, whereas 1 Peter points the elders towards a metaphorical but eternal crown of glory. The reality of Augustine’s episcopal ministry was more like what 1 Peter enjoins than what Huguet’s altarpiece glorifies, but the painting serves as a warning counterpoint. It is salutary to think that the first audience for 1 Peter would have responded to the carving from Iraq instantly, seeing in it Jesus, the Good Shepherd. They would have fewer clues to help them interpret what was going on in the painting of Augustine’s consecration. The symbols of episcopal office that had become commonplace by Huguet’s day, and that remain obvious to us today, would have been puzzling to the elders, struggling to guard their threatened flock in a hostile society. But if the setting in which Christian authority is exercised changes, the theological challenge remains.

El Greco painted the Repentant Peter a number of times. He may have done this at least partly in the service of the Church’s PR, in a period in which regular confession was being promoted. Yet the painting throws light on some of 1 Peter’s sense of what leadership entails. The symbols of Peter’s power—the keys—look almost like a manacle. There is no sense that Peter is going to enjoy the exercise of this authority. Instead, what holds the eye is the glorious golden robe that is wrapped around Peter, covering up the coarser tunic beneath, and cushioning the heavy keys so that they do not bruise Peter as he walks. The robe is Peter’s richest treasure, which is his repentance; paradoxically, this glowing gold is a symbol of humility. This is what makes Peter the rock on which the Church is built.

1 Peter 5 speaks out of an understanding of leadership that is pastoral, self-sacrificial, and eschatological. The author numbers himself with the elders to whom he is writing, rather than claiming to be their superior. He cites as his dual credentials that he witnessed the sufferings of Christ and that he, like them, lives in expectation of the future glory (5:1). Between those two poles, Christian leadership grows, and the tension between them gives shape to the task. The flock need to know that the journey through suffering is leading to green pastures, and they can only know that if their leaders can point to the one who has already travelled that way: Jesus Christ.

 

References

Clowney, Edmund P. 1988. The Message of 1 Peter (Leicester: IVP)

Michaels, J. Ramsey. 1988. 1 Peter; Word Biblical Commentary 49 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson)