Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, c. 1618–1620
Alternately attributed to Nicolas Tournier, French (worked in Italy), 1590–c. 1639
Oil on canvas
39 1/8 × 52 3/8 in. (99.4 × 133 cm)
Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston
Habits of Mind
- UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Shape and Scale
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Solve mathematical and real‐world problems involving similar shape and scale drawings
Connecting to the Work of Art
In this painting, Saint Paul the Apostle (c. A.D 5-c A.D 67), one of the most influential early Christian missionaries and leaders, is sitting quietly at his desk, writing one of his epistles (letters). He holds a pen ready in his right hand and gazes at a script, pausing in a moment of reflection. This painting is rich with symbols: the rolled scroll, cards, books, and loose scripts that surround him, and the sword, biblically associated with the word of god, at his left.
The softness of this painting lends a sense of intimacy and quiet reflection. The fold of his cloak, his delicately painted scholar’s hands, and the curves of the scroll and the book express a meditative air. The artist paints light realistically, forming a vital part of this composition. Notice how the light falls on his bald head, the table, and the sword. The striking contrast between light and shadow, together with the simplicity of the half-length figure, reveal the artist’s influence by Caravaggio, whose radical paintings depicting strong contrast between light and dark were enormously influential in the early 17th century.
The artist carefully balanced the composition of the painting through the use of the red cloak, adding color and drama in the right side of the painting leaving the left side shrouded in black haze. This is a technique used to draw the viewer’s attention to an object of interest.
In the center of the painting, viewers can see a reflection of a face on the table. At first glance, it seems to be a reflection of Paul or perhaps because the figure is pictured with a crown of thorns, the head of Christ. Look carefully and it becomes clear something is not quite right. The angle of the reflection does not align with the face, nor is the light source correctly placed to be casting such a reflection. It appears that the face was part of a previous composition that the artist painted over. This was a common practice, since canvas was expensive. When an artist deemed a painting unsuccessful, they often painted over the existing image and started anew.
Through X-radiographs, scholars have concluded that there are actually three compositions layered on top of each other on this canvas. The first painting, vertical in orientation, showed an artist at his easel. This figure was painted over with an image of Christ crowned with thorns. The shadowy, upside down image that you see here in the table survived from that second painting. X-radiographs indicate that the bottom layer of paint shows an artist at his easel, possibly making that earlier version a self-portrait. It is interesting that time, and modern technology, has revealed the artist’s earlier paintings that were never intended to be part of the final version.
- Where is your attention drawn to first? What compositional technique does the artist use to draw the viewer into the scene?
- What words would you use to describe the tone of the painting? Explain your answer.
- What do you notice about the objects on the table? Look closely at and describe the various objects. Think about their color, texture, and form as well as their placement in relation to each other.
- Describe the light: compare the light on the figure to the background. How does this add to the mood of the painting?
- Describe the objects on the table. What do you think their relationship to St Paul is?
- Notice what appears to be a reflection of a face on the table. Describe this reflection in relationship to the face of St. Paul.
- How would you describe the physical features of the sitter, such as his hands? What words would you use to describe the attitude of the sitter?
- Notice the simple, tightly cropped composition. How would this be different if we could see the surrounding of the scene?
- Consider the artist’s choice of color: How does the black background highlight the red gown? Explain how it heightens the sense of drama within the composition.
- How does the artist create a scene that is both reflective yet include a sense of drama? Explain your answer using evidence from the work of art.
- In the center of the composition, viewers can see a reflection of a face on the table. At first glance, many believe that it is the face the Paul. Look closely at the work. Do you agree? Why or why not?
- In fact, this work is actually three compositions superimposed on a single canvas. Why do you think an artist would reuse canvases?
- How does knowing that the face is not part of the intended composition change your interpretation of the work?
Questions to Ask
Teacher Notes/ Conversation: Use this discussion as a warm-up to a unit.
• Where is your attention first drawn?
• What do you notice about the objects on the table? What do you think their relationship is to the sitter?
• In the center of the composition, viewers can see a reflection of a face on the table. At first glance, many believe that it is the face of Saint Paul. Look closely at the work. Do you agree? Why or why not? How does knowing that the face is not part of the intended composition change your interpretation of the work?
• In fact, this work is actually three compositions superimposed on a single canvas. Why do you think an artist would reuse a canvas?
• Using the information given, determine the size of the canvas.
- If the museum chose this work of art to be the center of an exhibition, the Public Relations department would need to create a banner advertising this event.
- Will the banner be larger or smaller than the original work of art? So, what does this mean in regards to the scale factor?
- Divide the class into groups. Given the original dimensions, have each group determine whether they will double, triple, or quadruple the size of the original work of art for the banner.
- The Public Relations Department needs this information from each group:
- What are the dimensions of the banner?
- If the banners cost $8.50 per square foot, how much money will need to be budgeted for the banner?
- Once the banner is delivered, the buildings and grounds crew will need to hang it. How much would it cost to pay three staff members to hang it at $14.25 per hour? It will take them 1.5 hours to hang it.
- What is the total cost for your banner?
- The Public Relations Department needs this information from each group:
- Whole class compares various costs and sizes.
- Extension/Optional: Create a brochure reducing the scale.
Subject Matter Connection
Middle school students are very much involved in their own world and are often completely disconnected from the world of others. They are learning to become their own person and sometimes don’t put themselves in another person’s shoes. It is important for them to realize that there are other perspectives in the world and that we cannot always assume that we know the “right way and only way” or any way for that matter.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.