In the Vatican palace there is one chamber in a series of chambers decorated with Raphael's paintings which is called in Italian Stanza d'Eliodoro, or the Heliodorus Room. The name is taken from the first of the paintings which cover the walls of the room.

The story which Raphael told in this picture is taken from an incident in the history of Jerusalem, which is related in one of the books of the Apocrypha and in Josephus's History.

It was at a time when Jerusalem was a prosperous city, owing its good government to the upright and honorable character of the high priest Onias. Through his efforts a large fund of money and treasure had been laid up for the relief of widows and orphans. This treasure was stored in the sacred precincts of the temple and carefully guarded for the uses for which it was intended.

Now it came about that a distant king heard of this valuable treasure and set his heart upon it. He called his treasurer Heliodorus, and straightway sent him to Jerusalem to bring back the treasure by fair means or foul. Heliodorus was a bold man ready for his evil task. Arriving at Jerusalem, he sought out Onias and made his demand, which, as a matter of course, was promptly refused. Heliodorus then prepared to take the treasure by force, and, accompanied by his men, pushed into the temple amid the lamentations of the people and the prayers of the priests. But just as the robbers had laid hands upon the coveted treasure, a strange thing happened; and this is what the old narrative relates:—

"There appeared unto them a horse with a terrible rider upon him, and adorned with a very fair covering, and he ran fiercely and smote at Heliodorus with his forefeet, and it seemed that he that sat upon the horse had complete harness of gold.

"Moreover, two other young men appeared before him, notable in strength, excellent in beauty, and comely in apparel, who stood by him on either side, and scourged him continually and gave him many sore stripes.

"And Heliodorus fell suddenly unto the ground, and was compassed with great darkness."[4]

[4] Maccabees, book ii., chapter iii., verses 25-27.

Vatican Palace, Rome

In the picture the priests still kneel at the distant altar while the temple treasures are being borne away in heavy chests and jars. Meanwhile swift retribution overtakes the despoiler. In gallops the mysterious gold-armored horseman, his prancing steed crushing the prostrate Heliodorus under his forefeet. On rush the two celestial avengers, springing through the air in great flying leaps. Their feet do not touch the ground as, with outspread arms and wind-blown hair, they bound lightly forward, raising their scourges to drive out the enemy. Heliodorus vainly lifts his spear to save himself; his men are panic-stricken; his plot is undone. And yet in all this the angelic avengers do not touch one of the prostrate or falling figures. Even the horse's hoofs are not planted on Heliodorus. The victory is not won by force, but by the mysterious power of celestial spirits.

Here is the way this picture affected a lover of art who stood before it: "The Scourging of Heliodorus is full of energy, power, and movement. The horse and his rider are irresistible, and the scourging youths, terrible as embodied lightning; mortal weapons and mortal muscles are powerless as infancy before such supernatural energies. Like flax before the flame—like leaves before the storm—the strong man and his attendants are consumed and borne away."

There is an interesting contrast in this great picture, for while all this terrible action is going on at one side, one sees in an opposite part a group of women and children, looking on with astonishment and alarm. Near by is a figure carried in a chair on the shoulders of strong men. This figure is Pope Julius II, and the reason why Raphael introduced him into the painting is as follows:—

Julius was a warlike Pope who had expelled the enemies of the church from the Papal territories and enlarged the boundaries of these territories. He was also a great patron of the arts. He called on Raphael to make designs for this chamber which should represent the miraculous deliverance of the church from her secular foes; and as he was regarded as the chief instrument in the victory, Raphael made him present at this Expulsion of Heliodorus.

Not only the walls of the Heliodorus Room are adorned with pictures, but the ceiling also is covered with designs, illustrating four Old Testament stories of divine promises to the patriarchs: The Promise of God to Abraham of a numerous posterity,[5] The Sacrifice of Isaac, Jacob's Dream, Moses and the Burning Bush.

[5] Sometimes interpreted as God appearing to Noah.

Probably Raphael, who had friends among the cardinals and other learned men of Rome, consulted them as to the selection of subjects for this room. One can trace the thought which binds them all together. On the ceiling we have God's promises made to his people of old, while the pictures on the walls show how the same watchful Providence delivered the church in later years.