It seems appropriate on this date of the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul to comment on all the news that broke over the weekend in regards to St. Paul (and St Peter as well, indirectly). First, on Saturday, L’Osservatore Romano broke the news of the discovery of the oldest iconic images of St. Paul, found in the catacomb of St. Thecla, dating to the late fourth century. The article gives the impression that the identity of the Saint wasn’t really clear until laser restoration of the fresco had taken place, and the online version of the article includes the photo you see to the left (there’s another photo at the site which shows the laser restoration in progress).
The story was picked up by piles of news services, as might be imagined, and we get some more details than the original Italian report. Firstly, the Telegraph appears to have the best version of the ‘official’ photo of the fresco:
The Telegraph also seems to be one of the few sources who interviewed includes some comments from Barbara Mazzei, who directed the work in the catacomb. Inter alia, she told the Telegraph:
We had been working in the Catacomb for some time and it is full of frescoes. However the pictures are all covered with limestone which was covering up much of the artwork and so to remove it and clean it up we had to use fine lasers. The result was exceptional because from underneath all the dirt and grime we saw for the first time in 1600 years the face of Saint Paul in a very good condition. It was easy to see that it was Saint Paul because the style matched the iconography that we know existed at around the 4th Century – that is the thin face and the dark beard. It is a sensational discovery and is of tremendous significance. This is then first time that a single image of Saint Paul in such good condition has been found and it is the oldest one known of. Traditionally in Christian images of St Paul he is always alongside St Peter but in this icon he was on his own and what is also significant is the fact that St Paul’s Basilica is just a few minutes walk away. It is my opinion that the fresco we have discovered was based on the fact that St Paul’s Basilica was close by, there was a shrine to him there at that site since the 3rd Century. This fresco is from the early part of the 4th Century while before the earliest were from the later part and examples have been found in the Catacombs of Domitilla.
On the apostle’s iconography, see this useful page … as for it being the “oldest”, I’m somewhat hesitant — I’m pretty sure there’s a solo image of Paul in the Catacomb of Priscilla which may or may not be older. I can’t find any enlightenment on the web for that one.
The other big news in regards to St Paul was that tests had been done on bones found in his in the Basilica of St. Paul. The sarcophagus believed to contain his remains was discovered at the end of 2006 and for quite a while, it seems, Vatican archaeologists were unsure whether there were any bones in it at all. Whatever the case, according to ever-increasing media coverage, Pope Benedict announced yesterday (Sunday) that C14 tests had been done on the bones found in the sarcophagus and indicated a date from the first/second centuries. The quote from the pontiff which is appearing all over:
This seems to confirm the unanimous and undisputed tradition that these are the mortal remains on the Apostle Paul.
Other details of note (via the Reuters report):
Pope Benedict gave details of the discovery, saying a tiny hole had been drilled in the sarcophaguus to permit inspection of the interior, revealing “traces of a precious linen cloth, purple in color, laminated with pure gold, and a blue colored textile with filaments of linen.”
“It also revealed the presence of grains of red incense and traces of protein and limestone. There were also tiny fragments of bone, which, when subjected to Carbon 14 tests by experts, turned out to belong to someone who lived in the first or second century,” said the pope.
… hmmm. Not sure about you, but purple linen with gold suggests the burial of a rather wealthy Roman, which may or may not accord with the traditional image of St Paul, who would have been under house arrest for a couple of years before being beheaded. I’m sure I’m not the only person thinking it would be interesting to properly open the sarcophagus and see if the remains inside indicate decapitation, and it appears that a Dutch archaeologist is in the same category. According to a piece at Monsters and Critics, inter alia:
Responding to the claim by Pope Benedict XVI that the bones of St Paul have been found in Rome, a Dutch expert, Rengert Elburg, said Monday this can never be proven.
Elburg, an expert on archaeological study of old bones and organic remains for the government of the German state of Saxony, told the German Press Agency dpa in an interview, ‘It’s impossible to establish that it’s him.’
Even a genetic analysis of the bones in a sarcophagus marked as Paul’s would reveal nothing, because there were no proven descendants whose DNA could be compared.
‘But the bones could tell you the sex and age of death of the person,’ he said. A face could be reconstructed if a skull were in the grave. ‘But we don’t know how Paul looked, so that doesn’t help identify the body,’ he said.
Elburg said scientists were likely to check for links to the historical account of the beheading of St Paul, the author of copious letters and first interpreter of Christianity.
‘Traces of beheading can be identified with absolute certainty,’ he said.
The cut was usually found between the third and fourth vertebrae.
Elburg counselled maximum precision in opening the sarcophagus, saying, ‘It will be comparable to opening the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh.’ Fabric in a coffin could fall apart at a touch.
He said dry, outside air would not damage fabric or the bones. The presence of any clothing was likely to depend on whether the sarcophagus had been hermetically sealed for 20 centuries.
… and we might actually get to that point; an excerpt from the coverage in the Times:
Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, the archpriest of St Paul’s, said that he had known for more than a year that the tests had shown that the bones were those of a man of the 1st century, but had been sworn to secrecy because it had been “up to the Holy Father to make this public”. He said this was why the Vatican press office had denied last week that the bones had been identified. “Only the Pope can make such an important and solemn announcement,” he said.
The cardinal said he was now waiting for permission from the Pope to open the tomb, which would be a “long and delicate operation” in order to avoid any “structural damage” to the sarcophagus. Andrea Tornielli, the papal biographer, said that Pope Benedict’s announcement recalled Pope Paul VI’s declaration 41 years ago that the bones of St Peter had been identified.
Of course, we’ll keep you updated in regards to any developments or additional details of note.
On the fresco:
- È la più antica icona di san Paolo (L’Osservatore Romano)
- Scoperto in una catacomba romana il più antico ritratto di San Paolo (Il Sole 24 Ore)
- Primo ritratto di San Paolo: straordinaria scoperta nelle catacombe di Santa Tecla (Il Messaggero)
- Rome catacomb reveals “oldest” image of St Paul (Reuters)
- Rome catacomb reveals “oldest” image of St Paul (News Daily)
- ‘Oldest’ image of St Paul discovered Telegraph
- Oldest known portrait of St Paul revealed by Vatican archaeologists (Times)
- Is this the earliest image of St Paul? ‘Sensational’ 1,600-year-old icon of saint found in a Roman tomb (Daily Mail)
On the bones:
- Pope says bone fragments found in St Paul’s tomb (Reuters)
- Pope says bone fragments found in St Paul’s tomb (Reuters via Yahoo)
- Pope says bone fragments found in St Paul’s tomb (Reuters via News Daily)
- Pope: Scientific analysis done on St. Paul’s bones (Washington Post)
- Pope: Scientific Analysis Done on St. Paul’s Bones (New York Times)
- Pope says tests support saga of St. Paul’s bones (MSNBC)
- No proof that Vatican bones are St Paul’s, says Dutch expert (Monsters and Critics)
- Basilica bones are St Paul’s, Pope declares after carbon dating tests (Times)
- Bone fragments confirmed to be Saint Paul(Telegraph)