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The Apostles Peter (left) and Paul (right) stand on a dark ground facing each other, and holding with their right hands a miniature of the Church. In Peter's left hand he holds a scroll and the keys to the Kingdom. While Paul holds a closed Gospel in his left hand. In the middle of the church is an altar table with a chalice containing the Eucharistic meal. St Peter (standing on our left side). In a celestial opening Christ Emmanuel (the iconic representation of Jesus as the Logos).
The iconography is traditionally known as the 'Pillars of the Church' because Peter and Paul are recognised as the two most important apostles who uphold the foundation of the Church. This phrase is first encountered in the important late 1st century Christian text known as the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians by St Clement of Rome. For example, in describing the persecution of Peter and Paul for the sake of the Church of Christ, the author writes: 'By reason of jealousy and envy the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church were persecuted and contended even unto death'.
The representation of Peter and Paul is one of the earliest subjects commonly depicted in Christian art; the two of them were considered the ‘princes of the apostles’ and the foundation of the Church. Christ declared that Peter was the ‘rock on which the Church would be built' (Matt. 16:19), whereas Paul was to be the means of disseminating the Word of God (Acts 9:15). Iconic portrayals of the two apostles were popularised around the time of the Councils of Lyons (1274) and Ferrara (1438-45). Examples are the scenes of them embracing (see fig. b), flanking of the cross, or their appearance on royal doors. Depicting these saints together was especially prevalent in the 14th and 15th centuries, mainly because it expressed in visual terms contemporary theological attempts to unify the Eastern and Western Christian Churches. The most well-known examples are Greek, Cretan and Balkan.
Though created at a slightly later date, the current example has some similarities with the well-known Cretan version in the Louvre (fig. a), which may have been a model for our object.
The miniature church that the saints hold can be understood in two different ways. First, it acts as a direct symbol of the Church being supported by the apostles. But miniature objects like this were an important part of the Byzantine liturgy. Miniature objects representing large architectural structures transposed by scale were used for various purposes. For example, a model structure in the shape of a church in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was originally used as the base of a cross (fig. c). Such details incorporate and interconnect the divine, eternal space represented in the icon with the actual space of the church during a service, blurring the boundary that separates the heavenly and earthly churches.