The conversion of St. Paul the Apostle, which was in the second year after the Ascension of the Lord. — Roman Martyrology for January 25
In art from practically any era St. Paul is easy to identify by his long, pointy beard and receding hairline. Medieval portraits almost always use a sword as his attribute, and many of them continue to give him the book or scroll seen in his earliest images.
Under the name of Saul, the Apostle had attended at the stoning of St. Stephen and became a zealous persecutor of Christians. But one day a bright light threw him to the ground and a voice from the sky said, "Saul, why are you persecuting me," and identified itself as "Jesus the Nazorean" (Acts 9:1-9, 22:6-9, 26:12-18). This conversion experience has been a popular subject in the art. Like the Fra Angelico at right, most images follow the details in Acts 22, the only passage where Saul's companions see the light but only Saul falls to the ground.
The Fra Angelico follows Acts and earlier images of the conversion in showing Paul and his companions as pedestrians (example from the 12th century). This tradition continues at least until this fresco from 1477-82. But as early as this stained glass window from the mid-14th century some artists were showing Paul thrown from a horse. By the mid-15th century the horse appears in more and more images. This innovation may have arisen from the conventional figure of Pride riding a horse or falling from a horse, as in this drawing from the 13th-century sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt. Nothing in scripture explicitly associates Paul with pride, but his falling to the ground does resonate with Proverbs 16:18, "Pride goeth before destruction: and the spirit is lifted up before a fall." There is also the horse metaphor in Jesus' words as Paul lies on the ground, "Why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goad" (Acts 26:14). At any rate, the horse became an inevitable feature of the conversion images. Indeed, Tintoretto puts a multiplicity of horses and fallen riders in his 1540-42 version, emphasizing the vast upheaval in human history that this episode represents.
According to St. Jerome's De Viris Illustribus "in the fourteenth year of Nero [i.e., 68 AD] on the same day with Peter, [Paul] was beheaded at Rome for Christ's sake and was buried in the Ostian way." Following this passage, many images present the deaths of Peter and Paul together in the same frame (example), while others depict Paul's death separately (example).
Another not infrequent subject is Peter and Paul's defeat of Simon the Magician. The Golden Legend's account of this apocryphal tale derives ultimately from the 2nd-century Acts of Peter and the post-4th century Acts of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul. Simon has convinced the Emperor Nero to believe in him as Son of God. To prove his divinity, he jumps from a tower in the Campus Martius and is carried aloft by his attendant demons. But St. Paul kneels to pray and St. Peter says, "'I adjure you, ye angels of Satan who are carrying him into the air to deceive the hearts of the unbelievers, by the God that created all things…no longer from this hour to keep him up, but to let him go.' And immediately, being let go, he fell into a place called Sacra Via…." Some examples are an apse fresco in Switzerland and a mosaic in Sicily.
Some churches display entire cycles on the life of the saint. No doubt the most exhaustive of them is the one in St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. Paul's life and works are also detailed in the Peter and Paul mosaics in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo.
Images of Paul's death are surprisingly rare. Perhaps the most spiritually imaginative of them is Tintoretto's painting, which captures the spirit of the saint's remarks on death, life, and ministry.
It is very common for Paul to be included in a grouping of 12 apostles (example), and like them he is usually pictured in sandals or barefoot. He is also frequently seen with St. Peter. The two flank the Christ in Traditio Legis and Christ Enthroned images, and they can be seen left and right of the main figure in other common subjects (the Madonna, the Transfiguration, the Man of Sorrows, and even a false window in a mausoleum).
Paul's distinctive beard and hairline are evident from the very earliest images. The hairline may trace to the 2nd-century Acts of Paul and Thecla, which says he was bald. Just one 4th-century sarcophagus fragment gives him a full head of hair. But many other images from the 4th give him the receding hairline and pointy beard that will become all but mandatory in later centuries. One example is what the London Telegraph in 2009 claimed was the earliest picture of St. Paul. Others include Traditio Legis images on Roman sarcophagi. Also from the 4th is a fresco in the Catacomb of Marcellinus and Peter in Rome, where the pointy beard is quite pronounced.
The sword attribute comes much later. The earliest example I have seen is this 1325 painting, which also identifies him by the epistles in his left hand. There may be earlier examples, but in Giotto's 1320 Stefaneschi Triptych the saint holds only a small baton in one hand and a book in the other, nor does the sword appear in the numerous images I have seen from before the 14th century.
The 2nd-century Acts of Paul and Thecla describes Paul as "a man small in size." Artists usually ignore this.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-01-19, 2017-02-05, 2018-02-24.