Search the Collections
Catherine D. Wentworth Collection
Gallery Rotation, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Legion of Honor, 1988 and later
In Raphael’s day the Sistine Chapel was divided into two halves by a screen or cancellata. The first half contained the chancel with the altar and the papal throne. The other, a slightly lower level, was reserved for the laity. Saint Paul Preaching at Athens was intended to hang in the lay section, just beyond the cancellata. Its placement enhanced the choice of subject and determined its internal perspective. According to the account in Acts 17: 22-34, Saint Paul addressed the philosophers of Athens from the hill of Mars. In the tapestry he stands above his audience, some of whom are cut off by the lower border. On the wall of the papal chapel, Saint Paul would have towered over the actual secular audience that was the counterpart of the ancient one in the tapestry. Both the real and the pictured audience would be composed of those who mocked, those who postponed judgment, and those who believed. The two believers in the foreground are Dionysius the Areopagite and the woman Damaris. The tapestry follows Raphael’s design more closely than some of the other panels of this series. It has narrowed the original design by eliminating the space behind Saint Paul. Buildings have been omitted to allow a vista of the seaport and distant landscape. The heart of the subject matter, the confrontation of faith and skepticism, is intact. The faces of the listeners show an expressiveness not found at Lystra. The central scene of the lower border is a duel between two heavily armed mermen. They fight in the midst of the sea, surrounded by sea monsters. From Anna Gray Bennett, "Five Centuries of Tapestry: The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco" (San Francisco: Chronicle Books; The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1976; repr. 1992): 182.