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.

Art, Transfigured

Today the Church marks the Feast of the Transfiguration, that moment recounted in the Gospels when Christ briefly revealed His true nature to His three closest disciples, Sts. Peters, James, and John.  Without question the single most iconic image of this event in the history of art is Raphael’s eponymous altarpiece, which he was working on when he died, now in the Vatican.  Chances are you will recognize the image of Jesus which appears in the painting, even if you have never seen the entire work at full length, for it has proven to be one of the most enduring images of Christ in the world.  And this last masterpiece by one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance gives us the opportunity to consider what secular art historians so often fail to consider when examining Western art, which is the influence of spiritual writing on popular piety.

The painting itself is unusual at first glance because it combines two different stories from the Bible: that of the Transfiguration, which dominates the upper half of the piece, and the attempt by the other Apostles not present at the Transfiguration to cure a boy possessed by demons, which takes up the lower half.  Because these two events occurred sequentially, rather than simultaneously, in the Gospels, one way to “read” the painting would be somewhat like how we read a comic strip.  However nothing in religious art, back when people actually thought about things like iconography and spirituality, happens by chance.  This is what makes the study of art history not only fascinating, but something of a multi-disciplinary subject.

A current theory for the juxtaposition of events shown in this altarpiece would not be apparent unless one was also familiar with the writing of the Franciscan mystic, Blessed Amadeo of Portugal (1420-1482), who suggested that the Transfiguration was a Biblical preview of Christ’s return in glory at the Last Judgment.  The Apostles down at the bottom of Mount Tabor are unable to cast the demon from the boy on their own, and they have to wait until Jesus comes back to them for the healing to happen.  Thus, symbolically, evil cannot be finally cast out from the world until Christ returns.

In the early 16th century, a collection of Blessed Amadeo’s sermons and writings attributed to him were combined into a work entitled the “Apocalipsis Nova”, or “The New Apocalypse”.  It was published after his death, and loosely formed a commentary on the Book of Revelation based on Blessed Amadeo’s own thoughts and experiences, in part examining the symbolism of that book of the Bible.  This work was widely circulated among the well-read and well-to-do in Rome and elsewhere, as they reflected on the signs of the times, and the role they themselves were playing in them.

We often forget that until the so-called Enlightenment, most people were deeply concerned about the impending coming of Christ again in time, in order to render the Last Judgment.  This ongoing concern is reflected through a long period of Western art, including sculptures depicting the Last Judgment which usually dominated the Western facade of the great cathedrals, all the way to Michelangelo’s famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel.  It is perhaps all too telling that today, one rarely sees this subject treated in art, or if it is, it is treated somewhat mockingly.

What is interesting about Blessed Amadeo is that after his death some of his work and the work attributed to him was condemned as heretical by theologians, and placed on the Index of Forbidden Books.  As it turned out, with greater scholarship it later became apparent that some of the works attributed to Blessed Amadeo which were clearly heretical, turned out not to be by him, but rather were written by another Amadeo or even by unknown individuals, and given his name.  However at the time that Raphael was working, Blessed Amadeo’s spiritual writing was certainly popular, but not exactly acceptable, at least in certain circles.  One can imagine those reading the works of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, a century later, going through the same issues.

This question mark over Blessed Amadeo’s work arose even though he had not only been a confessor to Pope Sixtus IV, but he had also founded and led a reform movement of the Franciscans known as the Amadeans, who sought to bring the Friars Minor back to their roots of poverty and simplicity.  As an interesting footnote, the fact that Michelangelo’s Last Judgment appears where it does in the Sistine Chapel is likely no accident, for the structure was originally built by Blessed Amadeo’s friend, Sixtus IV.  So despite whatever controversy his spiritual writing engendered, Blessed Amadeo’s recounting of visions of heaven and the saints struck a chord with the well-read and the powerful.  He influenced not only works of art such as this, but the spirituality of influential people such as the Medici family, one of whom originally commissioned this painting from Raphael, and the Hapsburg family, particularly those in Spain.

Like other spiritual writers before and after him, Blessed Amadeo was sometimes misunderstood by his contemporaries, even while his mysticism was embraced by others.  However with the Feast of the Transfiguration today, and with Blessed Amadeo’s own feast day coming up on August 10th, we can appreciate how he has helped us to picture an event in a way which our tiny human brains can understand: a brief glimpse of the Divine in all its glory.  It also gives us, at a more earthly level, a greater appreciation that the study of great art in the Western tradition goes well-beyond simply looking at the image and understanding – or THINKING we understand – what we are seeing.  For even as this painting of the Transfiguration has a permanent impact on how we imagine that event in our own minds, the story behind how this particular interpretation came to be can be just as powerful, if we dig deeper into the story of its creation.

Raphael

“The Transfiguration” by Raphael (1516-1520)
Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City