After You, Sir

Today gives me a fitting opportunity, being the great Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, to draw attention to one of my favorite images of the two great apostles. The Catalan Romanesque-transitioning-to Gothic painting on panel, reproduced below, is a wing of a bi-panel altarpiece dating somewhere between 1250-1300. The second panel features St. Michael the Archangel and the Devil weighing souls in a balance. There is something about both pieces which makes me laugh, as I shall endeavor to explain.

The altarpiece in question, now housed in the Episcopal Museum of Vic (a city about an hour or so from Barcelona), was created for a church in the Vall de Ribes, in the Catalan Pyrenees. The artist is known to us only as the Master of Soriguerola. Whoever he was, this painter clearly had a particularly lively imagination, most obviously seen in his portrayal of devilish behavior. And if we are honest, we must admit the demons in his pictures look somewhat comical, even if what they are doing is not.

In this piece we see St. Peter on the left, holding his giant keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and St. Paul on the right, holding the sword with which he was martyred. Both are wearing gold and blue robes in opposing colors. We should notice how St. Peter has a full head of hair while St. Paul is portrayed bald, as both men have been depicted by the majority of Christian artists since the earliest days of religious art.

There is another detail however which is very interesting: notice the line running around St. Paul’s head, with the mark right in the center of his forehead. The obvious explanation is that the artist is portraying St. Paul’s wounds from his martyrdom. However, St. Peter is not shown with any stigmata from his crucifixion, and we already know from our Christian iconography as 13th century mass goers that if we see the image of two older men standing together, one with keys and one with a sword, that the image represents Sts. Peter and Paul – no wounds necessary.

My armchair theory is that this marking around St. Paul’s head with the small central object on the forehead might not be the wound of his martyrdom, since tradition holds that his entire head was struck off rather than just the top – indeed, one Italian tradition says that the head bounced three times when it was struck off. Instead, I suspect that this marking could be the artist’s portrayal of a tefillin, i.e. the cube worn strapped around the forehead by orthodox Jews when performing morning prayers. Before his conversion of course, St. Paul was a Jewish scholar; in fact St. Paul was a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee, as we learn in the Acts of the Apostles.

At the time this panel was painted the Jews were, despite being victims of periodic persecutions, very much a part of the social and commercial make-up of Catalonia, particularly in the capital city on Barcelona and in the region of Girona from whence this panel and the other known works by the Master of Soriguerola hail. In fact the city of Girona, capital of the eponymous region, has an expansive and very well-preserved ghetto, and was the location where many of the writings which today form the kabbala were written. The first great pogrom to forcibly exile or convert the Catalan Jews did not take place until about 1390-91, long after this panel was completed, and so one can reasonably assume that the Master of Soriguerola would have been familiar with the appearance of the Catalan Jews he saw in the marketplaces and elsewhere as he made his way through the city and the province of Girona.

Theory aside however, the real reason I love this piece is because it is a lot of fun. The Apostles – so often portrayed as such dour, intimidating men in Western Art – here seem to be having a lively, gesticulating debate. I have always thought that they are each deferring to the other because they are walking in opposite directions along a narrow pathway, with St. Peter saying, “After you, sir,” to which St. Paul responds, “No, no – after YOU, sir.” Admittedly, this is (like the preceding) my own interpretation, and its validity is completely unreliable.

Nevertheless, the work of the Master of Soriguerola is a very vibrant example of how Catalonia took its Catholicism seriously, but at the same time managed to bring an element of playfulness into its art. As this particular painter was working with ecclesiastical approval, the local bishop must not have found theological fault with his work. I suspect this is further evidence of the fact that Catalans from the hierarchy on down did not see a problem with bringing a somewhat unusual sense of humor into their culture from the earliest centuries of the formation of their national identity.

For example, the night before the Feast of St. John the Baptist, it has been a long-standing Catalan custom since the Middle Ages for people to dress like devils and go out in search of mischief. At dawn of course, all of the imps must run away and be vanquished by the arrival of Christ’s messenger. And as I have written about previously, Catalans have some unusual customs at Christmastime which may to outsiders seem somewhat impious. One can even argue that the Sagrada Familia – built by the Catalan of Catalans – is in fact such a stunning building in part because it such a fun building to explore. It is not hard to see how Catalan painters, working in such a culture, would have had a bit of play in their painting.

In any event, this is a great piece of very old art, for a very great feast day.

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