THE SACRIFICE AT LYSTRA

The Sacrifice at Lystra was another of the great tapestries, and was in the second series of five which had to do with the life of St. Paul as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. The apostle was on a journey with his companion Barnabas, and they were teaching and healing as they went. At Lystra they had performed a wonderful cure in healing a man who had been a cripple from his birth.

"And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, 'The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men,' And they called Barnabas Jupiter, and Paul Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker.

"Then the priest of Jupiter, which was before their city, brought oxen and garlands unto the gates, and would have done sacrifice with the people. Which, when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of, they rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out, and saying, 'Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God.' ...

"And with these sayings scarce restrained they the people, that they had not done sacrifice unto them."[3]

[3] Acts of the Apostles, chapter xiv., verses 11-15, 18.

In the picture we see the two apostles standing on a platform at the left, by the steps of a temple, just as the crowd sweeps along from the other side with two oxen in the midst of them. It was just such a sacrificial procession as was formed on the days when they honored their gods in the temples. Paul and Barnabas receive the demonstration with dismay, the former rending his garments, and the latter clasping his hands in perplexity.

In the tumult of many figures we pick out five principal persons. At the right is the restored cripple whose recovery is the origin of the excitement. His folded hands, raised in adoration, come against the back of a youth who, quick to see the apostles' displeasure, reaches out an arm to stay the sacrifice. His hand nearly touches the shoulder of the sturdy priest in front, who is lifting his axe to deal the deathblow to the sacrificial ox. The priest's up-raised hand is brought near the elbow of Paul, behind whom stands his fellow apostle. Thus there is a continuous chain extending across the picture to link together those who make up the plot of the story. The most attractive face in the company is that of the youth in the centre, eager and handsome among the stolid countenances surrounding him. The apostles themselves are presently to join him in his efforts to restrain the people, but for the moment, single-handed among so many, he springs forward fearlessly to oppose the purpose of the mob.

THE SACRIFICE AT LYSTRA South Kensington Museum, London 
THE SACRIFICE AT LYSTRA 
South Kensington Museum, London

These five figures thus linked together carry the story, but how abundantly the scene is enriched by the minor characters! There are not a great many figures, and each head is seen perfectly, so that one can count the actual number of persons present; but the first impression made on the eye is of a hurrying, eager crowd. As one looks more closely, he discovers particular persons who help to fill out the story. There are two priestesses kneeling beside the ox that is to be sacrificed. One figure, other than the cripple who has been healed, is shown in the attitude of prayer. Perhaps the old man at the extreme right is drawing aside the robe of the cripple, curious to see if there are any signs of the miracle, or if that really was the leg which was helpless.

The two children who stand by the altar, one playing the pipes, the other with a book of music, are very characteristic of Raphael, who loved thus to introduce a playful, innocent element. The singing child has his eyes bent on the ram which is led up for sacrifice.

Raphael, like other illustrators of the Bible, does not always follow exactly the text which he is to illustrate. The people called Barnabas Jupiter, and Paul Mercury. This would seem to show that Barnabas was a great, imposing figure, and Paul, according to tradition, was a small, undersized man; but there is no such contrast to be seen here.

By a happy suggestion, the painter has placed in the background on a pedestal a statue of Mercury. We know it by the winged staff which Mercury is supposed to carry as a sign of his office of messenger of the gods.

Raphael painted at a time when scholars and artists were enthusiastic over the rediscovery of the literature and art of the ancient world. Such a scene as this, therefore, appealed to him; for he could not only depict a Biblical incident, but he could make his picture a study of ancient life. The architecture, the altar, the figure of Mercury, the wreath-bound heads, the sacrificial act itself, were all such as he could imagine from ancient Greece. Indeed, the whole picture is like a copy of an antique bas-relief; and in the original cartoon there is, below the picture, a decorative border studied from antique sculpture, and below that still an ornamental edge which was very common in Greek work.