The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”
Though not illustrated, the episode before Paul’s vision sets the context for this fresco. In Act 22:30 – 23:10, the commander releases Paul to the Jewish Sanhedrin (e.g. assembly of Jewish leaders, established in each city to hear cases of violations of Jewish laws). Having made the error of arresting a Roman citizen without cause, the commander is back-tracking to find out what the Jewish community is upset about.
Paul uses some tricky debating to get the factions, the Pharisees and Sadducees, arguing over a point of theology. Not only does this take the focus off of him, but also demonstrates to the commanders that this group is a sack-of-cats. The commander orders his troops to secure Paul by taking him back to the barracks for his safety. While at the barracks, this scene occurs.
We see Paul kneeling before Jesus, who steps forward on a billowing cloud. Jesus encourages Paul and informs him that he will testify in Rome. The artist, Domenico Bartinolini, works with paint, using the special-effects and iconography of fresco artists. Imagine what Pixar Studios would do with computer-graphics here!
We have all seen the God-Cloud at some time. You know, those puffy cumulus clouds, white and cottony on the top, grey on the bottom, with one central spot brightly illuminated with diverging rays of light descending from the heavens to the earth. It’s a real wide-angle shot that draws our eyes to the light source. Pre-Christian, Roman artists had been using this effect to depict their rulers ascending to become gods, an apotheosis. The effect was easily co-opted to illustrate Jesus’ resurrection. Then a host of saints, the Virgin Mary, et al. used this escalator to come and go from heaven to earth. The Baroque artists loved this effect on ceilings. Theatres use dry-ice to create clouds for dream scenes. Movies use clouds to transition to other worlds and times.
Here Jesus stands on this tradition of the cloud-effect. Yet, the text only states that “the Lord stood near Paul”.
Maybe the ghost-effect would have been better. You know the translucent image, in which we know that the person is there, but not in a fully physical manner. We can see them, but also see through them. This usually suggests that only a specific viewer, or group, can see the person. Remember those scenes in Star Wars, in which Obi wan returns after his death to guide Luke Skywalker? Artists must make decisions about how to present their story.
But, could Jesus have just been standing there, fully in human form? This raises an issue with titles. This fresco has the word “vision” in its title. While other sections of the Acts of the Apostles refers to Paul seeing vision or seeing angles or Jesus in visions, this text does not use this wording. Our tradition that anything metaphysical must be a vision leads us to see Jesus on clouds or in a non-physical form. He could have just been standing there.
Back to the iconography in the fresco. Jesus’ right arm gestures toward Paul. His left arm points toward a group of Roman guard objects, a helmet, spear, sword and shield. This parallels Jesus comment that Paul will go to Rome.
Between them, just before Jesus left hand, is a crescent moon. Once again, this is a symbol of the Virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother, who by then was probably dead and ascended to heaven (In St Paul’s Outside the Walls, there is a huge mosaic of the Ascension of Mary in the South transept altar). Paul will go to Rome and follow the path of Jesus, Mary, and other saints.
Yet, there are no Roman guards. Paul could have complete access to these weapons. He could escape. He does not.
On the table next to Paul is a box of scrolls. Is Paul studying the scriptures even in the barracks, even after years of testifying to at the synagogues and forums? One scroll is open, with some text showing. Is Paul writing a letter? Does this foretell, not only of his travels to Rome, but his imprisonment there? Paul will testify in Rome. But, what has stood as his testimony for centuries is the letters that he wrote to the various churches and friends.
These images create a circle around the fresco, a special-effect of continuity and eternity. Paul knees before Jesus, who points to his future, which leads to his writing, which leads back to Paul. Art is about connecting to the audience. How do we become part of this narrative? Read the text that Paul has left for us.