Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Was St. Paul really Leonardo da Vinci?

4. Television program is produced.

Uh, wait. I'm getting a little confused here. The Daily Mail has launched this year's religious news silly season, with Jesus and St. Paul moving up to spots no. 2 and 3 in its Spiritual Celebrity Sweepstakes, although still trailing Michael Jackson by a Roman mile.

Let's see if we can sort this out.

First up, we have a publicity hound who has decided that the famous Shroud of Turin, believed by some to be the burial cloth of Jesus, is actually a forgery by — wait for it — Leonardo da Vinci. The Shroud Code!
Lillian Schwartz, a graphic consultant at the School of Visual Arts in New York, claims that the image is a self-portrait of Leonardo, which was made using a crude photographic technique. Using computer scans she found that the face on the Turin Shroud and a self portrait of Leonardo da Vinci share the same dimensions.
The same dimensions? Later the writer uses the word "proportions," apparently in the same sense, but the sense is lost on me in either case. The head was taller than it was wide in both faces? Both mouths were wider than the noses? What a breakthrough!
Miss Schwartz came to prominence in the 1980s when she made detailed measurements of the Mona Lisa and a Leonardo self-portrait. To her amazement, the two faces lined up perfectly, leading her to suggest that he used a self portrait as a model for the painting.
The two faces lined up perfectly? What does that mean? Did a witness pick those two faces out of a police line-up? ("Now, take your time. I want you to be very sure. Which of these five men is Leonardo and which is Jesus?")

Earlier this year she used the same technique to compare another Leonardo self-portrait with the Turin Shroud. 'It matched. I'm excited about this,' she said. 'There is no doubt in my mind that the proportions that Leonardo wrote about were used in creating this Shroud's face.'

There was no doubt in my mind that there was no doubt in her mind when I read further and discovered that a TV documentary about Miss Schwartz's astounding discovery will be broadcast tonight. If it's on TV, it must be so.

What about the shroud's fairly well-documented history of being exhibited long before Leonardo's time, which is even mentioned glancingly in the Daily Mail story? That was part of Leonardo's put-on. He was once, twice, three times a genius! A Renaissance man! He created those historical records, focusing the image on the shroud he created through a pinhole camera onto a medieval sheepskin discarded from one of his flying machine experiments!

Now we're clear on that, let's see how St. Paul wandered in here. Again in the Daily Mail, we have a story about an apparently more reputable archeological discovery, although if you can find two archeologists who agree about anything, the chances are one of them is deaf, blind, and mute.
Ruthless, half mad, he stoned Christians to death. He also founded modern civilisation. And until yesterday, his fate was one of history's great mysteries...

Deeply moved, the Pope delivered the news on Sunday that fragments of bones found in the tomb traditionally considered to be that of Saint Paul did indeed date from the first or second century. Which means that, in all likelihood, they are the bones of the Apostle Paul - bones that have lain there for 1,950 years yet, astonishingly, have only been discovered in our time.

This article is written by A.N. Wilson, author of about 500 books, fiction and non-fiction, and undoubtedly a knowledgeable man. My understanding is that while he has a keen interest in religious history (among many other things), he is of a skeptical disposition.

Nevertheless, you can't blame him for that boldfaced lead-in, which was probably the work of a copyeditor. "Half mad"? What bosh.

The Pope was not saying that he revered some relics as a matter of faith. He was saying that scientists, by carbon dating, have come as close as possible to identifying the very bones of St Paul himself.

Why is he so convinced? Though the carbon-dating experts knew nothing of their origins, the bone fragments were recovered after a tiny probe was inserted into the tomb which lies in a crypt beneath the Basilica of St Paul outside the Walls in Rome - a church long held to have been built on the site where Paul was buried.

Well, that settles it. Carbon dating shows the bone fragments to date from very close to when we think St. Paul was martyred (no one knows exactly). Within a year of the presumed date? Five years? Fifty years? Two hundred?

What else gives us such confidence?

Now, it appears that the aural tradition, passed on by word of mouth since the second century, that he had suffered martyrdom and was beheaded for his faith, is true. For this same tradition insists that his tomb is in the church of St Paul outside the Walls - where the bone fragments identified as his have been found. The Roman Church from the very beginnings made a cult of its martyrs and revered both Peter and Paul as the two great leaders of their Church.

Yes, the Church did indeed make a cult of its martyrs, and built altars and churches around any bits of their earthly remains they could convince themselves, or at least the worshipers, were to be found. Not just bones, but hair, tongues, teeth, hearts, and things perhaps better left to the imagination.

The Vatican archaeologists have also found a very old fresco - dated to three centuries after Paul's death - on the walls of the catacombs, which appears to be a faithful likeness of Paul.

The old icon-painters and makers of frescoes and mosaics did not paint from whim. They saw their task as the keeping alive of a tradition, and accounts of Paul's appearance would have been passed down from generation to generation. This picture, of a bald Jewish man with a pointed beard, is very likely authentic. Both discoveries - of the bones and of the frescoes - are inspiring new discoveries of the Christian faith's roots in actual history.

Either Wilson has undergone a lifebed conversion, or he is kidding us up just as Miss Schwartz says Leonardo was. No one of Wilson's learning could be this naive, give or take a few hundred thousand scholars. The painters of late antiquity passed down "accounts of Paul's appearance" from generation to generation? Through verbal description? ("Pssst. Bald. Pointy beard. Keep it to yourself till you're ready to go to heaven, then whisper it to your best disciple.") So that three centuries after Paul's ministry on earth, following this oral tradition, an accurate likeness was painted?

Wilson does a jig over the bones and frescoes being "inspiring new discoveries of the Christian faith's roots in actual history." Christianity has a historic, as well as spiritual, past? If only Edward Gibbon had known.



Anonymous said...

I briefly went to the School of Visual Arts, right after it became an accredited 4 year college. In retrospect, it seems absurd that SVA was accredited. The kids who went there had money and talent, but very little reading and writing went on. This was 35 years ago, but the current story indicates it hasn't changed much.

Dennis Mangan said...

A.N. Wilson has in fact converted to Christianity.

zazie said...

absolutely off topic I know ; Do you remember when you asked me whether we say "les USA sont" whereas you say "the USA is" ? Well, What will you say tomorrow, "is" or "are"? Anyway, have a nice independence day!

Rick Darby said...


Interesting. I am curious about you. Are you originally a New Yorker? I am too, although most of my adult life has been spent -- deliberately -- elsewhere.


I'm a little surprised, but good on him. Maybe he is such a fixture in the English literary Establishment that he finally felt he was safe coming out of the closet as a Christian. Despite his renown, I bet when he goes to cocktail parties in his circle he receives many an oh-so-polite, carefully worded, savage put-down.


We Yanks are so déclassé that we can't even follow our own English rules of grammar. So I will go with the tradition and say, "The United States is." Until it no longer is.

Anonymous said...

I was born in Queens and raised in northern New Jersey. I lived in Manhattan in the 70's and early 80's. I was very artsy, but when I finally grew up, I couldn't stand the art world. Believe it or not, my chronic depression disappeared as soon as I arrived in California. I've noticed that ex-New Yorkers who visit New York come back with a bad vibe.

Rick Darby said...


I know exactly what you mean. Visiting New York after I moved away always used to bring me down. Now that I no longer have family there I hope never to see New York again.