Sts. Peter and Paul, the Penitent Pillars of the Church

SAINTS & ART: Today’s saints are illustrated in art by Pietro Lorenzetti, a 14th-century painter from Siena

Pietro Lorenzetti, “Christ Between Sts. Peter and Paul,” ca. 1320
Pietro Lorenzetti, “Christ Between Sts. Peter and Paul,” ca. 1320 (photo: Public Domain)

A priest-friend, Father Warren Kinne, once described Sts. Peter and Paul as “two men who each had a story behind his ears.” By that he was referring to their moral faults. Peter could be a big mouth when it came to declaring things but, when push came to shove, he’d retreat: consider his triple denial of Christ (John 18:15-18, 25-27) or his backpedaling in Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14) over whether Gentile Christians were bound by Jewish dietary laws. Paul was prepared to slaughter Christians in Damascus. 

But both were willing to repent, willing to stop and recalibrate what they were doing by listening to God instead of themselves. That’s why today both are saints. Indeed, both are pillars of the Church.

Peter, born Simon, came from Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus began his public ministry, Peter was living in his mother-in-law’s home in Capharnaum, also on the Sea of Galilee, and apparently had a profitable fishing business. 

Peter is among the inner core of Apostles, the threesome — Peter and the two “sons of thunder,” the brothers James and John — that are often privileged witnesses of events with Jesus (e.g., the Transfiguration or the raising of the daughter of Jairus). Peter’s brother, Andrew, is also an apostle, sometimes the fourth wheel to that threesome. Andrew is particularly significant because it is he who brought Peter to Jesus and, at that first meeting, Jesus already indicates something of Peter’s future significance by changing his name from Simon to Peter, “the rock” (John 1:40-42).

Peter’s prominence among the Apostles continues to grow: he is often the apostolic spokesman. He confesses Jesus’ Divinity at Caesarea Philippi, the turning point of the Gospels. He is the one willing to try a walk on water at the bidding of Jesus.

But he’s also the one who wants to divert Jesus from any suffering, resulting in Christ calling him “Satan.” And, as mentioned above, he’s the one who, after professing his readiness to die with Christ, denied him thrice.

Jesus forgives Jesus that threefold denial through his threefold profession of love for Christ, charging Peter to tend and feed “his sheep” (John 21:15-23). 

Pick up the Acts of the Apostles. This second book written by Luke is really the Acts of Peter and Paul. It starts with Peter bursting out of the Upper Room in Jerusalem after Pentecost repeatedly to proclaim Jesus as Savior, and largely documents his deeds, including his progressive inclusion of Gentile Christians in the Church. He is last mentioned in Acts at the Council of Jerusalem, when the early Church decided that one did not have to pass through Jewish dietary rules to be Christian. Acts also includes the conversion of Paul and details his many missionary journeys, ending with his arrival in Rome as a prisoner.

Peter ended his days in Rome, though when or how he got there remains unclear. Mark’s Gospel — which in some sense is a compendium of Peter’s preaching — bears clear Roman marks. The earliest Fathers of the Church all speak of Peter’s martyrdom in Rome. He was crucified head downwards, around AD 63, in Rome on Vatican hill, which is why St. Peter’s Basilica was located there. 

St. Paul came from Tarsus, a city in what is today southeast Turkey not far from Adana. His father was a Roman citizen, which Paul inherited, and devoted to the Pharisaic school of Judaism, which Paul also would be. He learned the trade of making tents, since many Jews of his day had a manual trade to earn their living, but was sent by his father to Jerusalem to study under the extraordinary rabbinical authority, Gamaliel. 

Paul excelled at his studies and many expected him to be an equal to, if not exceed, Gamaliel. His religious zeal is what got him the commission from Jerusalem to go to Damascus to make the Christians there “an offer they couldn’t refuse” — return to orthodox Judaism or die. It was on the road to Damascus that Paul is “knocked off his high horse” and has his encounter with the Risen Christ, which leads to him becoming a Christian himself. He was baptized in Damascus, went off to “Arabia” to deepen his knowledge of Christianity, then visited Peter in Jerusalem. He then returned to Tarsus for perhaps five years, from which Barnabas recruits him to work in the apostolate to the Gentiles that appears to have been incipient in that time. 

From AD 45-57, Paul was most active in his missionary journeys, progressively expanding the field of his reach beyond Cyprus, the shores of Israel and Syria, and what today is called Turkey. Eventually, he made his way to Europe, primarily Greece, and finally arrested on his return to Jerusalem for supposedly bringing Gentiles into the Temple. The trumped-up charges against Paul eventually led to his trial before various local rulers who, discovering he was a Roman citizen (and thus entitled to trial in Rome and immune from crucifixion), pack him off to the capital (after various local attempts at lynchings). Paul is temporarily marooned on Malta, but eventually reached Rome. He apparently had some degree of free movement but his last years, which reach beyond the period of his writings, are somewhat obscure. It is relatively certain Luke was his companion in Rome. Paul was eventually executed by beheading, probably in AD 64, somewhere on the Ostian Way. He was buried at the Basilica of St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls.

Our saints are illustrated in art by Pietro Lorenzetti, a painter from Siena in today’s Italy active in the first half of the 14th century. His painting depicts what its title says: “Christ Between Peter and Paul.” Christ, properly, is in the center. Peter is on the right with his usual attribute, keys (“I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven” — Matthew 16:19). Paul is on the left, though I cannot say what he is holding (his usual attribute is a sword, the means of his martyrdom). 

Lorenzetti is also “between.” The painting dates from about 1320. Medieval influences are still strong, as we see the dramatis personae alone, without human companions or any earthly but rather a golden, heavenly background. It’s said that Lorenzetti experimented with three-dimensionality, something more characteristic of the Renaissance art that was on its way. The painting is in the Ferens Art Gallery in Kingston, England.