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The earliest fresco representing Christ surrounded by the Apostles dates from the beginning of the fourth century. It was discovered in the cemetery of Domitilla, under a thick covering of stalactites. Christ is seated on a throne, His feet resting on a footstool, and His right hand raised in the oratorical gesture. Six other frescoes of this subject, Christ instructing the Apostles, have been found in the Roman catacombs. Besides these groups, showing the entire Apostolic college, portions of two other frescoes which originally represented only the two chief Apostles, St Peter and St. Paul, on either side of Christ, have been discovered. In one of these frescoes the figure of St. Peter and a small portion of Christ's are preserved; no trace of St. Paul remains. The second fresco, on the other hand, preserves St. Paul's figure entire. A third fresco of particular interest, in the cemetery of Priscilla, exhibits a subject frequently represented on sculptured sarcophagi, namely, Christ giving the law to St. Peter. Christ is standing on the globe, His right hand raised and extended, while, with His left, He is handing to St. Peter a roll which the Apostle receives with veiled hands. The author of this scene, which dates from about the middle of the fourth century, evidently regarded the Prince of the Apostles as holding an office under the New Law the counterpart of that of Moses under the Old. A fresco of the cemetery Ad duas lauros, dating from the middle of the third century, appears to have been inspired by the same idea: St. Peter is represented, seated on a low chair, with an open roll which he is carefully studying.
Such are the earliest painted representations of the Apostles still in existence. With the exception of St. Peter and St. Paul, according to Wilpert, the Apostles show no specially individualistic traits, some are portrayed with beard, some without, but merely for the sake of variety. The two chief Apostles, on the other hand, are always easily recognized and are of marked individuality. St. Peter appears as a man of great energy, with a short, thick beard, and close cut, curly hair, which in the earlier frescoes is partly, in the later wholly, gray. St. Paul is represented as the Apostle of intellect, bald, and with long, pointed beard, dark brown in colour. With slight changes this type of the two Apostles was always represented in cemeterial frescoes, mosaics, and sculptured sarcophagi, and in fact persists to the present day. Indeed so familiar were Roman Christians with the conventional appearances of their favourite Apostles that, save in a few cases, the artists never thought it necessary to inscribe their names underneath their pictures, even when represented with other saints whose names are given. From this persistence of type Wilpert regards it as probable that, if the Romans did not actually possess portraits of Sts. Peter and Paul, at least a tradition existed as to their general appearance, and that catacomb representations of them conform to this tradition. The historian Eusebius informs us that he had heard of "likenesses of the Apostles Peter and Paul" as well as of Our Lord, being preserved in paintings (Church History VII.16).
The most perfect of the ancient representations of St. Peter and St. Paul are those of the well-known bronze medal, dating from the second century, discovered by Boldetti in the catacomb of Domitilla and now in the Christian museum of the Vatican. The types of the catacomb frescoes are here readily recognized: the close cut, curly hair and short beard of St. Peter, and the longer beard and fine head of St. Paul. Portraits of St. Peter and St. Paul exist also on a number of the gold glasses found in the catacombs; on these the familiar type is reproduced, but the workmanship is of inferior order. Allusions to the office of St. Peter as head of the Church, besides the traditio legis pictures mentioned above, are seen in those monuments in which Peter takes the place of Moses as the miracle-worker striking the rock in the wilderness, and also in several parallel scenes on sarcophagi contrasting Moses with Peter. In catacomb frescoes of the third and fourth centuries Christ is frequently represented performing miracles by means of a wand. Peter is the only Apostle, in early Christian monuments, who is shown with a staff or wand, apparently as a symbol of his superior position. The keys are seen for the first time on sarcophagi of the fifth century; from this date on these attributes of St. Peter appear with increasing frequency on the monuments, until, from the end of the sixth century, they become the rule. The oldest fresco of the giving of the keys to the Prince of the Apostles is in the crypt of Sts. Felix and Adauctus; it is attributed to the beginning of the sixth century.
The famous bronze statue of St. Peter in the basilica of this Apostle in Rome is by some regarded as a work of the fifth or sixth century, by others as pertaining to the thirteenth. The latter date is adopted by Kraus and Kaufmann among others; Lowrie, however, maintains that "no statue of the Renaissance can be compared with this for genuine understanding of the classic dress", and, therefore, this writer holds for the more ancient date. The marble statue of St. Peter taken from the old basilica, now in the crypt of the Vatican, was originally, in all probability, an ancient consular statue which was transformed into a representation of the Prince of Apostles. The now familiar symbol of St. Paul, the sword, made its first appearance in Christian art in the tenth century. St. Peter and St. Paul quite naturally appear much more frequently in Roman and western monuments than the other Apostles; as founders of the Roman Church, and one of them as head of the universal church, their memory was revered in the centre of Christianity. In all representations also they occupy the place of honour, to the right and left of Christ. Curiously enough, St. Paul is generally, though not invariably, on the right and St. Peter on the left. De Rossi, however, regards this arrangement as a matter of no particular moment, and points out that in some classic representations Juno, the wife of Jupiter and queen of the gods, appears on the left of her spouse, while Minerva occupies the right.
Wilpert, Malereien der Katacomben Roms (Freiburg, 1903); Kraus in Realencyklopadie f. Christl. Alterthumer s.v. Petrus u. Paulus (Freiburg, 1896); Krull, ibid., s.v. Apostel; Kaufmann, Handbuch der christlichen Archaologie (Paderborn, 1905); Lowrie, Monuments of the Early Church (New York, 1901).
APA citation. (1911). Portraits of the Apostles. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12294b.htm
MLA citation. "Portraits of the Apostles." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12294b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Judy Levandoski.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.