I traveled a thousand miles north to Wyoming this summer, but mardecortesbaja contributor Paul Zahl (see The Zahl File) and his wife Mary ranged even further afield, leading a religious-themed tour to Russia. (Mary and Paul are personable folks, and Dr. Zahl is a widely respected scholar of religion, so they're much in demand for such tours.) Paul was kind enough to send some reports of his adventures, of which this is the first:
by Paul Zahl
aristocratic French visitor to The Hermitage Museum at St. Petersburg
lectures a young Russian of the early Nineteenth Century concerning a
painting by El Greco (above.) So moved is the Marquis by this painting that he
kneels in adoration before it. He explains to the young Russian that
the picture bears the image of the founders of Christianity, St. Peter
and St. Paul. The scene in Russian Ark is moving and
painting in person. It is in a room full of El Grecos, but it stands
out for its warmth and the humility of one of the figures. The picture
also tells a story familiar to many: the tension between humility and
grace, represented by El Greco's depiction of St. Peter; and doctrine
and the authority of the truth, represented by St. Paul.
Peter is on the left, an old and humbled man of soft features and
tenderness. You could approach him and tell him almost anything about
yourself. He is somewhat sad, sympathetic, and modest. The observer
has to look very carefully to notice that Peter is carrying the key to
the kingdom in his left hand. But that is in shadow, almost obscured.
possessed of his Idea. With his left hand, his left fore-knuckle
actually, he directs our attention to the Word, the Bible before him.
With his right hand, Paul reasons. His features are ascetic,
convinced, sincere, a little detached from persons, but possessed of
Rossellini's television movie entitled The Acts of the Apostles (above),
which treats the same men in somewhat the same way — as two sides of
one thing, the Christian faith. There is even a kind of yellow barrier
between them in the painting, emphasizing their difference.
Paul, his cerebral, reasoning attitude. It is unmistakable. He is
reasoning with the viewer, on the basis of a written text. St. Peter,
on the other hand, is 'reasoning' with us on the basis of a shattered
wisdom, what Dostoevsky called the 'strongest instrument, the humility
of humbled love'. (I know it is pretentious to quote Dostoevsky, but
his words are apt just the same.)
not identify with Peter at the expense of Paul.
Stockholm, and there it was (good God!) — the same painting, by the same
artist, in a room also full of El Grecos. But it was different. The
painting had the same subject, composed the same way, with the same
colors, but something was . . . well, wildly different.
features were pinched, and his hair . . . it was a mess. It was uncombed — what little there was of it was all
over the place.
What came to my mind was the episode ofThriller,
the old Boris Karloff television series, entitled “The Cheaters”. At
the end of the episode, a selfish man begins to see himself, through
cursed spectacles, as he really is. The makeup artist, Jack Barron,
first shows the man losing his hair and looking himself but bewildered.
Then we see the man grinning diabolically, with hideous scars on his
face and just a few tufts of hair. Finally, we see the man become a
sort of demon from hell, to which he is soon dragged by the very devil
himself. Fun little episode for schoolboys on a Monday night at nine
way back then.
Paul? His convinced, convicted authority in the Hermitage
version has become transformed into a sort of 'wild man',
'I-just-came-out-of-the-forest-with-Robinson-Crusoe' persona. The
Apostle has entered the Twilight Zone but hasn't come back. Or he is
like the character in a Stephen King story, who is awakened too soon
from a forty-billion-mile journey to a distant planet. Everything's
right but everything's wrong.
Paul” and found nothing on this weird difference. I can't believe it
has gone unnoticed. But it is disturbing.
doctrinal Christianity embodied by the Hermitage Paul, text-weighted
and cerebral, is superannuated. You see it today and you run. The
painter seems to have understood this instinctively. His later St.
Paul has sort of gone crazy. “Grandfather, we need to get you to the
hospital.” This Paul is not Diogenes, an old man of self-contained
de-constructing wisdom. He is a street-crazy — maybe inspired, like the
homeless man in Ordet, who has faith enough to raise the dead,
but you wouldn't take your child to him for a blessing.
Or, maybe he
is “The Howling Man”, of
benign at all.
St. Paul. But if the Stockholm Paul is the confessional Protestant of the two,
St. Peter is looking pretty good by comparison. And wasn't Senator Kennedy a good
advertisement for that side of the enterprise? [Editor's Note: Paul has elaborated Mary's insight about the portrait of St. Paul into a very provocative meditation. St. Paul wrote some of the greatest and most radical spiritual treatises of
all time, and they were a cry from the heart against law as a spiritual tool — but what he wrote was still theology, and all theology seems to have a
tendency to decompose into law, to be parsed for “rules” which can be
used to oppress instead of bless. A spooky thought occurred to me while reading Paul Zahl's piece — maybe the Stockholm portrait of St. Paul was once an exact copy of the
one in the Hermitage and has decomposed over time, like the portrait of
Dorian Gray, reflecting the historical misuse of St. Paul's letters. The
Twilight Zone, indeed!]