When you think about the apostles, what images come to mind? Perhaps you think of Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, in which Peter, John, and the other disciples are gathered around Jesus. Or perhaps you think of a Sunday-school image of Peter walking on the water. No matter what image came to mind, chances are good that you thought of a picture of a biblical scene. But if you had lived in the fourth or fifth century C.E., you generally would have thought of images that were more symbolic than based on a particular story, because early Christian depictions of the apostles did not function as visual versions of the canonical texts. Instead, they highlighted the symbolic importance of the apostles and their prominent role in establishing the church.
One of the most surprising aspects of early Christian art is actually the lack of images of apostles, with the notable exceptions of Peter of Paul. These two were understood to be the most important apostles and were especially venerated in Rome as the twin founders of the church there. From the third century and later, we know of images of them in multiple forms, including in catacomb wall paintings, church frescoes and mosaics, gold glass fragments, sarcophagi, icons, and various small finds such as gems and belt buckles.
Three primary themes prevail in these images: apostolic martyrdom, concord, and law. Peter and Paul were not only considered Christianity’s greatest apostles; they were also seen as its most important martyrs. The canonical texts tell nothing about the circumstances of their deaths, but later tradition said that both died in Rome at the hands of the emperor Nero. On numerous sarcophagi, Peter is pictured being led away to his martyrdom (tradition holds that he was killed by inverted crucifixion), and Paul is shown facing a soldier who is drawing a sword to decapitate him, as legend has it. An alternative allusion to the martyrdoms is preserved on many pieces of gold glass and features Paul and Peter receiving martyrs’ crowns from Christ.
Early images of Peter and Paul also emphasize the harmony of the apostles (concordia apostolorum). Although they had clashed in Antioch (Gal 2), Christians were careful to present this as an isolated incident, not an indication of ongoing rivalry between Petrine and Pauline factions. A common scene meant to show the apostolic harmony was the embrace of Peter and Paul when the latter arrived in Rome, where tradition said Peter had already come to establish the church. Later this scene was reinterpreted, particularly in the Greek-speaking East, as the farewell embrace of the apostles just before they were led away to their separate martyrdoms.
In images about the handing-over of the law (traditio legis), Paul and Peter are shown receiving Christian law in the form of a scroll or book from Christ himself. Such scenes are meant to demonstrate that these apostles were the divinely appointed successors of Christ and could speak with full authority on all matters of scriptural interpretation. In some cases, this scene is accompanied by images from the Hebrew Bible, thus also presenting the apostles as the continuation of the line of prophets.
Apostolic art in the early centuries, therefore, was focused on themes of apostolic authority rather than apostolic biography. Depictions of canonical stories were less frequent, and the surviving evidence suggests a heavy bias in favor of Peter and Paul versus the other apostles.