Peter of Bethsaida: Archaeology, Art, and Audacity

I’m going to attempt to tie together a few threads this morning, as I often do in these pages, and see whether the whole thing hangs together. This past Sunday, Christians celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration, while today is the Feast of St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers. Combine these two commemorations with a fascinating new archaeological discovery that will prove of great interest to Christians everywhere, and throw in some great works of art, and away we go. Bear with me, gentle reader.

On the news-y side of things, archaeologists in Israel believe they have found the site of Bethsaida the hometown of the Apostles St. Peter, St. Andrew, and St. Philip, near the Sea of Galilee. The Roman city of Julias was built on the site of Bethsaida, and is mentioned by the Roman historian Josephus, but its location was lost down the centuries. With the remains of a Roman bath house and other substantial finds at the dig site, scientists are now convinced that they have found the right spot. As of right now, the public isn’t allowed to visit the dig, but no doubt when it becomes accessible this site is going to be added to the pilgrimage trail for Christians visiting Galilee.

Bethsaida’s most famous resident, St. Peter, plays a major role in the Feast of the Transfiguration, which Christians celebrated this past Sunday. As retold in the Gospels, Jesus, accompanied by the Apostles Peter, James, and John, climbed up a mountain and revealed His true nature to these three closest followers, in a vision which was accompanied by the appearances of Moses and Elijah with the transfigured Christ. In St. Matthew’s recounting of the event, we read the following:

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him.

Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone. As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

St. Matthew 17:1-9

The Transfiguration has been portrayed many times in art, perhaps most famously in Raphael’s final masterpiece, left unfinished at his untimely death in 1520 at the age of 37. The depiction of Jesus in this painting, in particular, has proven to be hugely influential not only in art, but in popular culture. In Raphael’s interpretation of the event, St. Peter is clothed in blue and yellow, shown below and to the right of the transfigured Jesus. He has just finished offering to put up three tents, for Christ and the two Prophets, and is now lying on the ground and twisting his upper body so as to cover his face from the blinding light:

This beautiful but rather complex depiction of the Transfiguration contrasts sharply with the simpler and perhaps more profound one rendered by Blessed Fra Angelico, the Dominican friar and Early Renaissance artist. This particular fresco was painted on the wall of a cell in the Dominican friary of San Marco, outside of Florence, sometime between 1440-1442. In his more solemn and minimalist imagining of this event, Fra Angelico’s image is one of great stillness, rather than one of movement and energy.

Like Raphael, Fra Angelico places St. Peter to the lower right of Jesus, and the Prince of the Apostles still shields his eyes from the celestial light, but this time we see him is in a more upright position: unlike the other two Apostles, St. Peter is trying to see what is happening. Notice also that on the extreme left and right of the picture we see two individuals who were not present at the Transfiguration, but who are shown meditating about it: the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, and St. Dominic, whose feast day we celebrate today. The presence of such individuals is anachronistic, historically speaking, but was quite common in sacred art. It often provided a context for placement of the work of art – such as in this case, inside a Dominican friary, and bearing in mind that Dominicans have a particular devotion to the Blessed Mother.

While the individual focus of not only these works of art, but of course the Gospel retellings themselves, is Jesus, they also give us an opportunity to think about the character of St. Peter, and how he grew so far beyond what could reasonably have been expected of someone hailing from Galilee. I was particularly struck by this change in his character when reading-listening to the 2nd reading from Mass on Sunday, which was taken from the Second Letter of St. Peter. It personalizes the Transfiguration in a way which shows us that St. Peter is no longer that provincial fisherman, nor merely an easily-frightened follower of a maybe-Messiah, but a figure of authority, strength, and conviction for the first Christians to turn to:

We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
2 St. Peter 1:16-19

This absolutely explicit defense of the reality of the Transfiguration – and indeed, of the Resurrection, for St. Peter and the other two were enjoined by Christ not to tell anyone about the Transfiguration until after His Resurrection – shows us how far St. Peter has come. He may have started life uneventfully enough, in small-town Bethsaida, but by the time the scribe is writing this final letter to his dictation, St. Peter is imprisoned in Rome, and is aware that he is about to die because of his faith in Christ. “Therefore, I will always remind you of these things,” he notes, “even though you already know them and are established in the truth you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this ‘tent,’ to stir you up by a reminder, since I know that I will soon have to put it aside, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has shown me I shall also make every effort to enable you always to remember these things after my departure.” (2 St. Peter 1:12-15)

With a last look at the two paintings we considered today, then, and in the light of the discovery of St. Peter’s birthplace, perhaps the takeaway for us today is one of courage. No matter what forgotten town we start from, and no matter where we find ourselves – in the cell of a monastery, the cell of a prison, or a cell of our own construction – we must be brave in preaching what we know to be true. We may not have the opportunity or indeed the calling to go out and preach the Gospel fearlessly to great crowds, as St. Peter and St. Dominic did. Yet in our own small lives and small towns, we can preach with equal bravery, when we stand up for the things that we know are right in spite of both ourselves, and the rest of the world standing in opposition to us.

Advertisements

TBT: Ancient Edition

As curated link posts have been the thing of late, and I received a number of positive comments in response to my most recent iteration of same, here are a few topics that have piqued my interest in the area of ancient art over the last few days:

More Problems At The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York continues to reel from one disaster to another of late. The latest kerfuffle involves two works from antiquity which the museum has had to hand over to authorities. On Monday, the news leaked that the Manhattan District Attorney had seized a magnificent Greek vase decorated with scenes of Dionysus from the 4th century BC, which had been on display at The Met since 1989. Authorities believe the object was looted from a tomb sometime in the 1970’s.

The following day it was revealed that, a month earlier, the Manhattan D.A. had also seized another object of Ancient Greek origin from The Met. This time the art in question was a fragmentary Greek marble sculpture of a bull’s head, which may have been looted from Lebanon during the long civil war which that country suffered through for much of the 1980’s. The sculpture was on long-term loan to The Met from collectors in Colorado, who have unwittingly been drawn into an international dispute while ownership of the sculpture is sorted out.

Bulgarian Baptism

Archaeologists have recently discovered an ancient baptismal font dating from around the 5th century A.D. at a dig in the very ancient city of Plovdiv – at one time it was known as Philippopolis, a wealthy and luxurious town named for the father of Alexander the Great. The font was donated by a Bishop Makedonii to the Christian basilica which once stood on the site, and which seems to have been the largest Christian church in the country at one time. The city was burned to the ground by the Huns in the mid-5th century, so this new basilica replaced the old one, remnants of which have also been found. You can see the font, as well as the magnificent mosaic floors of the church, by following the link.

France’s “Little Pompeii”

Meanwhile in France, the excavation of a new housing construction site in Sainte-Columbe, a town outside the city of modern-day Vienne, has uncovered the most important archaeological site to be found in that country in the last 50 years. A series of houses and public buildings dating from the time of Christ are being excavated, and because so much of it is well-preserved, archaeologists are referring to it as a “Little Pompeii”. It is believed that a series of fires eventually caused the residents to abandon the town and move elsewhere, but as in any disaster scenario it means that many things were left behind, as-is. While the beautiful mosaic floors will be moved to a nearby museum, scientists may be able to reconstruct what one of the houses looked like, from top to bottom, since during the blaze it collapsed on itself like a stack of cards.

A Brassiere Fit For A Queen

Finally, there are lots of interesting stories about the Queen of late – such as this piece about the sort of tipple which she enjoys at various times of day – but this one is quite something. In 1953, on the occasion of the Queen’s coronation, the then-President of Panama sent a rather unusual gift: a large gold Pre-Columbian-style breastplate. It’s something that Queen Boadicea or even Wonder Woman would appreciate, but I don’t imagine HM tried it on for size when she received it.

For unknown reasons it went into storage and was forgotten about, until curators sorting through the royal basements and attics came across it, and realized its significance. Although originally dated to sometime around 1300, experts now believe that the piece could date from as early as 700 A.D. If you happen to be in London, you can toddle along to see it in the “Royal Gifts” exhibition, taking place at Buck House now through January 10th.
Vase

Meet Kha and Merit: A Wonderful Documentary On A Couple From Ancient Egypt

Being something of an amateur Egyptologist ever since I was little, I’m always on the lookout for things like interesting lectures on or collections of Ancient Egyptian antiquities. So if you’re as interested in this subject as I am, I highly recommend that you check out a two-part documentary from the BBC which I saw recently. “Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings”, hosted by Egyptologist Dr. Joann Fletcher, is one of the most interesting, engaging films I’ve ever seen on Ancient Egypt.

Although it touches on the lives of the Egyptian pharaohs, the heart of this film is Dr. Fletcher’s exploration of the life and death of a well-off, but non-aristocratic married couple. The discovery of their tomb a century ago was considered to be one of the greatest archaeological finds in history. And I must confess that, despite my interest in Egyptology, I had never heard of it until I saw this documentary.

Kha and Merit lived (very roughly speaking) around 1400 B.C., in a village near the Valley of the Kings which later became known as Deir el-Medina. Kha was an architect and oversaw the work on the royal tombs being constructed nearby, while Merit was his wife and the mother of his four children. Because of his position, Kha provided his family with a good living, and the family enjoyed a more comfortable lifestyle than most. Their tomb in the hills overlooking the village had somehow been missed by grave robbers, so when it was discovered in 1906, everything was still in place, exactly as it had been left when it was sealed.

The contents eventually found their way to the Egyptian Museum in Turin, and if you have any appreciation at all for cultural anthropology, you will appreciate the wealth of material for study that their gravesite provided. Not only are there the mummies, masks, and coffins that we all associate with Ancient Egyptian burials, but many items from Kha and Merit’s daily lives were buried with them as well. The collection includes the beds they slept on, the chairs they sat in, the board games they played, and even Merit’s box of cosmetics. One jar, for example, still has Merit’s black eyeliner and application wand inside, while another still smells of her favorite perfume. The find really was an extraordinary time capsule from the distant past.

What is unique in Dr. Fletcher’s presentation of this material, is that I’ve never seen an Egyptologist personalize the lives being examined in the way that she does. She looks at Kha and Merit not merely as subjects of scientific study, but as real people. She doesn’t focus on the documented achievements of Kha, even though we are made aware of them, but rather on things that most of us can understand from ordinary life.

For example, Dr. Fletcher walks us through the ruins of what may have been Kha and Merit’s home, describing what activities would have taken place in the different rooms. She shows us the sitting room, for example, where Merit and her girlfriends in the village might have sat down to have a morning gossip, while another room is where Kha and his friends would have sat into the night drinking beer and playing games after the children had gone to bed. She shows us what an Ancient Egyptian fully-equipped kitchen looked like, complete with brick oven and primitive refrigerator, and how Merit would have baked the bread that the family ate every day, as well as kept Kha’s beer cool for when he got home from work.

Dr. Fletcher also explores the love that Kha and Merit had for each other, not only as husband and wife, but also as parents. Merit’s only daughter, for example, who was named for her mother, is shown very tenderly looking after her parents in the family funerary chapel and tomb art. When we learn that Merit died rather unexpectedly – possibly from an accident or a sudden illness – before Kha, the family must have been devastated. Dr. Fletcher suggests that, as the only daughter, Merit the younger would have looked after her father until he died, as the art commissioned by her father would seem to suggest.

There is also a moment in the documentary that I can relate to, when Dr. Fletcher visits the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep III for the first time. It’s a tomb whose construction Kha oversaw, and a place that she knows well through research and pictures, but it is not usually open to visitors due to ongoing restoration work. When she is able to go inside and look around at the magnificent wall paintings, Dr. Fletcher gets a little choked up, and apologizes for being unprofessional on camera – but I’m glad they kept this in the final film. I recently had a very similar experience, when I visited the Pantheon of the Kings at the Escorial for the first time, so I immediately sympathized with her. Nerds sometimes react to things that we’ve studied closely in rather an unexpected way.

If I were to fault anything in this film, it’s the conclusion that a major difference between Kha and Merit and ourselves is a belief in an afterlife, or that this life is merely a preparation for the life to come – something that Dr. Fletcher posits a modern Westerner can’t understand. That statement is perhaps true for a majority of British academics, who stopped believing in God a long time ago, but it did seem a bit unnecessary to conclude this otherwise admirable film with a somewhat dismissive, albeit passing, observation on spirituality. Still, if you love Ancient Egypt, or even if you’re just interested in history in general, this documentary is well worth your time.