Chains of St. Peter
January 16, 2010
The story of St. Peter’s deliverance from the prison in Jerusalem, where he was held bound with two chains between two soldiers, is told in the Book of Acts, ch. 12. It is said that an angel came by, whacked him on his side while he was sleeping, told him to be quiet and to follow him, and led him out of his cell, past the prison guards and through the prison gates; passing a corner, the angel left Peter alone; only then, when he was out on the street by himself, did he realize that all this was real and not a dream. He headed directly for the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where the disciples were gathered and were praying for him; there he stood and knocked on the outside gate. Every time I read this story I am reminded of the home that belonged to Fr. Martin Ritsi, now the director of the Orthodox Missions Center in St. Augustine, Florida, when he and his family lived in Tirana, Albania in the 1990’s, and I was an Orthodox missionary there; like all the homes in that dusty neighborhood, his small front yard was enclosed with a fence and metal gate, and, when visiting his home, one had to ring the doorbell at the gate and hope that someone inside would hear it. Since the doorbell, like most things in Albania in those days, did not always work properly, one had to be very persistent in pressing the button, and sometimes, abandoning technology, one had to bang loudly on the gate until someone inside would hear. I often think about that gate when I read about St. Peter and the little girl Rhoda, who was so thrilled to learn that Peter was standing out in the street that she forgot to open the door.
The time of Peter’s arrest can be determined fairly closely; it must be placed between the years 41 and 44 A.D.: that is, between the return of Herod Agrippa to Judaea from Rome following the death of the Emperor Caligula, and Herod’s own death a few years later. (Luke states that this arrest occurred in the days leading up to Passover; perhaps it would make sense to place this scene in February or March of the year 42.) The immediate political background to the persecution of the Church that took place during these years is succinctly described by W.H.C. Frend in his book The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia 1984), p. 90:
“In 41-42 other significant events occurred. While the Christians were expanding their influence, Palestine had experienced a series of incidents that foreshadowed the breakdown of relations between Jews and Romans that took place a quarter of a century later. During the winter of 39-40 the Jews in Jamnia destroyed an altar erected by the pagan Greek minority in the town. News of this event reached the emperor Caligula, and as a punishment he ordered that a gilded statue of himself should be set up in the Temple. Rome was moving away from the Jewish alliance, but for the Jews this step, reminiscent of a similar move by the Seleucid Antiochus IV Epiphanes, was intolerable. Very many (Philo suggests ‘thousands’) were prepared to commit suicide or allow themselves to be killed by the Romans rather than acquiesce in this ‘abomination of desolation.’ They found a sympathetic advocate in Publius Petronius, the legate of Syria, who managed to postpone carrying out the order at some personal risk. At Rome, Herod Agrippa, a grandson of Herod I, who in 37 had been appointed tetrarch of the dominions of Philip and Lysanias (Upper Galilee, Abilene, and parts of Lebanon) managed to get the order rescinded. Caligula’s murder on 24 January 41 prevented its renewal. Agrippa returned to Palestine determined to represent his people to the uttermost within the bounds of client-kingship. His territories had been enlarged to include Jerusalem and Judea and he had been granted the title of king. Jerusalem became his capital and the Sadducean high priesthood his allies. ‘No day passed for him without the prescribed sacrifice,’ commented Josephus. He appointed a new high priest, ordered those who had taken a Nazarite vow to display this by having their heads shorn, and turned on the Christians. ‘He killed James the brother of John with the sword; and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also’ (Acts 12:2-3). The first organized persecution of the church had broken out.”
In other words, as political tensions began to rise between Judea and Rome, and as the newly appointed governor of Judea, King Herod Agrippa, sought to win favor with his subjects, he encouraged religious uniformity; dissident groups like the Christians, who were critical of the Sadducean high priesthood, were an easy target for persecution.
I sometimes wonder why there is no traditional Orthodox icon commemorating St. Peter’s escape from prison, although the feast of the Chains of St. Peter is celebrated on January 16th, in the East as in the West. For that matter, traditional iconography seems to neglect a whole range of biblical material. The only scenes in the Book of Acts commonly represented in traditional Eastern Christian art are the ascension of Christ into heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles at Pentecost. (Perhaps occasionally one sees images of St. Paul being let down outside the walls of Damascus in a basket.) Even the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus is depicted only infrequently. And as for depictions of events in the Old Testament, they are even rarer. Why is this?
In the case of the feast of the Chains of St. Peter, I recall reading that it began to be celebrated in the Eastern Church in the sixth century, after the healing of the Acacian Schism in 519. It may simply be that the feast never had a very important place in the Byzantine calendar, whereas, in Rome, Peter’s chains are housed in a basilica (San Pietro in Vincoli, first built in the fifth century), so it is not surprising that the feast should have a more important place there.
This still does not explain, however, why other scenes from the lives of the apostles are not represented more often in Orthodox iconography. It makes me wonder: is it that they are simply too pedestrian? There is nothing terribly awe-inspiring about Peter standing out in a cold street in the small hours of the morning, waiting for a little girl to open the door; it is hard to envision such a scene in hieratic poses, against an atemporal background of uncreated light.
In other words, the icon is, perhaps, misunderstood if it is viewed as primarily a historical image. It is, one may say, primarily a theological image, something whose function is to teach a theological truth. But, does theological truth ignore history? If so, why not throw out most of the Acts of the Apostles and the Old Testament?
But perhaps my view of Byzantine art is skewed by the fact that I am looking at it from the vantage point of an American in the early twenty-first century; I am, perforce, given a certain idea of it by the things that I have seen in churches that I have been to and in books that I have read. If I were living in the eighth or tenth or fourteenth century, and had other icons or illuminated texts in front of me, perhaps I would have a significantly different picture of what Christians of those times saw as important and worth communicating by way of visual art.