Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Beheading of St Paul

Alessandro Algardi (1598 - 1654)
The Beheading of St Paul
c. 1650
Marble, height: 286 cm
San Paolo Maggiore, Bologna

The death of St Paul by beheading is an unusual theme in art. It only occurs infrequently

This sculpture was specially commissioned for the Church of San Paolo Maggiore in Bologna

Of this piece a commentator has written:

"Algardi created a masterpiece without equal in Baroque sculpture. Often compared to painted altarpieces, Algardi's tableau exploits the traditional strength of sculpture by achieving a fully rounded, spatially complex group which plays upon the contrasting types and emotions of the figures.

Having established action frozen in time, the sculptor sets a spiral pattern in motion, from the poised right arm of the executioner through the shoulders and arms of the kneeling saint and back to his assailant's right leg and drapery.

The centre of the composition is a void, and tension builds up because of the imminent execution and the inevitability of martyrdom."

While the rest of the world were engaged in the furore over the lifting of the excommunications of the "Econe Four", the words of Pope Benedict XVI in General Audience on Wednesday, 4 February 2009 were sadly overlooked.

Zenit (but surprisingly not the official Vatican website) reports his words.

The talk was the final talk on the series of talks given by the Pope on the life and works of St Paul, which he had undertaken to commemorate The Year of St Paul.

In his talk, he discussed the death and legacy of St Paul.

""The figure of St. Paul is magnified beyond his earthly life and his death, he has left in fact an extraordinary spiritual heritage," he said. "He as well, as a true disciple of Jesus, became a sign of contradiction."

First he discussed how the Letters of St Paul became part of the Liturgy.

Then how much the writings of St Paul influenced the early Fathers of the Church.

He discussed the importance of St Paul on the life and works of Luther and how Luther`s interpretation "gave him a new, radical confidence in the goodness of God, who pardons everything without condition".

His surprisingly mild words about Luther may indicate the Pope`s rapprochement towards the Lutheran Church especially in Germany.

He then discussed how in reaction to Luther, the Council of Trent attempted a similar synthesis to that attempted by Luther but emerged with a "synthesis between law and Gospel, conforming to the message of sacred Scripture read in its totality and unity" and consistent with Catholic tradition.

He then went on to discuss 19th century developments in the study of St Paul`s writings which emphasised the concept of liberty:

""Here is emphasized as central above all the Pauline thought of the concept of liberty: In this is seen the heart of the thought of Paul, as on the other hand, Luther had already intuited," he said. "Now, nevertheless, the concept of liberty was reinterpreted in the context of modern liberalism.""

Then he discussed more modern developments which because of the shortness of the talk had to be truncated:

""Later, the differentiation between the proclamation of St. Paul and the proclamation of Jesus was strongly emphasized. And St. Paul appears almost as a new founder of Christianity," the Pope noted. "But I would say, without entering here into details, that precisely in the new centrality of Christology and the Paschal mystery, the Kingdom of God is fulfilled, the authentic proclamation of Jesus is made concrete, present, operative."

"We have seen in the preceding catechesis that precisely this Pauline novelty is the deepest fidelity to the proclamation of Jesus,"

He opined that in the last two hundred years that there was an increasing convergence between the Catholic and Protestant views of the teachings of St Paul which bodes well for the cause of ecumenism:

""In the progress of exegesis, above all in the last 200 years, the convergences between Catholic and Protestant exegesis also grow, thus bringing about a notable consensus precisely in the point that was at the origin of the greatest historical dissent," Benedict XVI said. "Therefore a great hope for the cause of ecumenism, so central for the Second Vatican Council.""

He summed up the legacy of St Paul thus:

""Substantially, there remains luminous before us the figure of an extremely fruitful and deep apostle and Christian thinker, from whose closeness, every one of us can benefit," the Pontiff concluded. "To tend toward him, as much to his apostolic example as to his doctrine, would be therefore a stimulus, if not a guarantee, to consolidate the Christian identity of each one of us and for the renewal of the whole Church.""

A wonderful and remarkable talk. It is sad that it has ben overshadowed by other matters.

For those concerned that the Pope will undermine progress in ecumenism and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, surely a matter for comfort.

For those who regard the Pope as a reactionary and hard-line theologian, perhaps they might be surprised. Hopefully commentators will realise that labels such as "conservative" and "liberal" are redundant and far, far too simplistic when discussing what this particular Pope thinks and teaches