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.

Pooping on Paganism: A Remarkable Find in Ancient Israel

The ancient site of Tel Lachish is now a ruin, but in its day the city of Lachish was almost as large as Jerusalem. Lachish is mentioned throughout the Bible, including in the Books of Joshua, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Chronicles II, Kings II, Micah, and Nehemiah. Outside of the Hebrew Scriptures, Lachish was also a familiar place to other ancient cultures. The capture and destruction of the city is recounted on the walls of the palace of King Sennacherib, in the ancient Assyrian capital city of Nineveh. It also appears in the so-called “Amarna Letters”, a group of tablets containing diplomatic correspondence found at Amarna, which was briefly the capital city of Egypt under the heretical Pharaoh Akhenaten. Lachish was destroyed and rebuilt many times, until it was finally abandoned sometime during the reign of Alexander the Great.

During the reign of King Hezekiah, we read in the Second Book of Kings that:

In the third year of Hoshea, son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, king of Judah, became king…He did what was right in the LORD’s sight, just as David his father had done.  It was he who removed the high places, shattered the pillars, cut down the [pagan] sacred poles…He put his trust in the LORD, the God of Israel; and neither before nor after him was there anyone like him among all the kings of Judah.
(2 Kings 18:1, 3-4)

Archaeologists excavating at Tel Lachish have recently uncovered a gate-shrine in the ancient city, and you can see a video about the dig here. Inside of the city gate was a pagan shrine, containing two altars as well as numerous offering vessels. At some point in the ancient past, the pointed, horn-like corners of the altars were deliberately smashed off. In addition, a rather grand toilet had been installed smack in the middle of the space. This is a particularly interesting find, because it is very similar to what the Bible describes in 2 Kings 10:27.

About a century before King Hezekiah ruled in Judah, King Jehu of the northern kingdom of Israel, went after the cult of the pagan god Ba’al. He smashed the shrines to Ba’al, and then installed toilets in them so that these places would remain permanently unclean. This is the first time that archeological evidence of this practice has been found. It would not be surprising then that King Hezekiah, in his zeal to stamp out paganism in Judah, would take the same steps as King Jehu had taken in Israel.

In essence, these Jewish kings were telling the pagans: “I poop on your false god.”

Proving or disproving the historicity of events recounted in the Bible is a fruitless exercise. The Tel Lachish excavation simply indicates that the events recounted in the Bible have some basis in fact – they do not turn the Bible into a history textbook. More importantly, and this is the real takeaway here, the find paints a rather vivid picture of the ancient struggle between Judaism and paganism in the Holy Land as something palpable and quite real.

​Coming To America: Jacob And His Twelve Sons

Father Abraham may have had seven sons, but we all know that his grandson Jacob beat him by having twelve, who went on to found the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Beginning next year, a traveling exhibition featuring a highly important series of paintings of the patriarch and his dozen lads by one of the greatest painters of the Baroque era will be coming to the United States. Perhaps just as importantly as the art that makes up the show itself, this event is not simply a curiosity, but part of an effort to stem the tide of de-Christianization in Britain, making this one cultural event that you will want to put on your long-term planning calendar.

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664) was one of the most important artists of Spain’s Golden Age. An exact contemporary of Velázquez, the greatest of all Spanish painters, Zurbarán became famous for his monumental canvases of religious figures. In these works the artist explored two very different ways of presenting his subjects, which seem almost diametrically opposed to one another.

On one hand, Zurbarán could evoke feelings of contemplation from the humblest, most austerely dressed monks and friars. Take a look, for example, at his painting of St. Francis of Assisi in Meditation (c. 1635), now in the National Gallery in London, where the founder of the Franciscans is shown wearing a worn, patched habit, his face obscured by his cowl. Another example, his Portrait of Fra. Francisco Zumel (1633) in the Royal Academy in Madrid, shows the Mercedarian friar and philosopher in a moment of thoughtfulness. His very white, but very plain robes are the only real brightness in an otherwise dark composition. 

On the other hand, Zurbarán also seemed to delight in portraying saints in the colorful costumes of his own time. Perhaps the best-known examples of this are his series of paintings of female saints, where the ladies are dressed to the nines. His painting of Saint Casilda of Toledo (c. 1630-35) for example, in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, shows the convert from Islam wearing an elaborate court dress made out of heavy damask, her hair braided with strands of pearls. Similarly, his elaborately dressed Saint Mathilda of Ringelheim (c. 1630-35) now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Seville, shows the very regally-attired mother of both the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I and of St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusian Order.

Falling somewhere in between these two tendencies are a series of life-size paintings of Jacob and his Twelve Sons which Zurbarán painted sometime during the 1640’s-50’s. Unlike the images of saints examined above, where the background is often little more than a wash of color, these men are painted outdoors in the dry, Mediterranean landscapes with which the artist would have been familiar. Many of them bear the implements of those who live off the land by farming and hunting, such as a shovel, scythe, or even a hunting dog on a chain. Others carry objects that reflect some aspect of their story, such as Levi, who is shown carrying a thurible in recognition of the fact that the priestly class of Israel descended from his line.    

Just as in his representations of female saints, Jacob and his sons are all portrayed wearing elaborate, colorful dress. Unlike in his portraits of the ladies however, Zurbarán does not make an effort in this series to idealize these men. Some of them are young and handsome, but others are aged and careworn. The Patriarch Jacob, for example, is depicted wearing an elaborately woven silk turban, with leather gaiters fastened round his ankles. In contrast to his rich garb, he is so old that he is bent double, and has to support himself on his walking stick.

As a whole, this series represents some of the finest work that Zurbarán ever achieved as a painter. Very few people have ever seen these paintings however, since for the past nearly 300 years they have resided in the dining room of Auckland Castle, the former residence of the Bishops of Auckland. Thus, the upcoming visit of these canvases to America is something not to be missed.

Regular readers will recall that I touched upon these pictures when they were purchased almost two years ago by collector and philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer. Mr. Ruffer has been hard at work creating a museum at Auckland Castle and in the surrounding town, dedicated to religious art and the history of Christianity in Britain.

In sending these works out on tour however, Ruffer is clearly calculating that creating awareness in America for what he is attempting to do in England will lead to a greater level of interest in his project. Mr. Ruffer is a very wealthy man indeed, but no successful museum is ultimately completely self-sustaining. His rationale for the project as a whole is encouraging, particularly in the face of a Europe which is becoming ever more radically secular, and more opposed to Christianity:

For me, the biggest thing of all is God, and I want Auckland Castle to be a place where God may be found ‘in the beauty of holiness’. I also understand that we live in an age when there is a widespread grumpiness at the very thought of the existence of God. The experience at Auckland Castle extends the idea of seeking things bigger than ourselves to other avenues of inspiration. Art, music, gardens, nature, food, silences, walks and the patina of heritage will all be found here. These things we call ‘the holiness of beauty’ sitting in harmony with the beauty of holiness – and in tension with it.

“Jacob and His Sons” will travel first to the Meadows Museum in Dallas in September of 2017, and then on to The Frick in January 2018. You can be assured that, when they arrive at The Frick, if I am still blogging, and you are still interested in my scribblings, I will be writing about them. Before that happens, however, I do want to make you aware of *why* these paintings are coming to this side of the Atlantic.         

Detail of “Joseph” by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1640-45)