The Crucifixion of St. Philip

Circa 1382
Conti Chapel, Basilica of St. Anthony, Padua

It is a fundamental tenet of Christianity that Christ died for the sins of mankind, or to put it personally, one's sins are what put Jesus on that cross. Thus in The Passion of the Christ it is the actual hand of the film's producer that drives the nail into Jesus' hand. When the gospel account of the Passion is read in church and comes to the words "Crucify him!" the entire congregation speaks those words aloud, thereby confessing their own culpability in the killing of Christ. This is the theme of Giusto's painting of the crucifixion of St. Philip in Hierapolis; in it the people of Padua today enact the role of the Hierapolitans who murdered Philip so long ago.

The setting in Padua is established by the image of the city in the left background with its famous walls washed by the two branches of the Bacchiglione River, and by the nearby Euganean Hills in the right background. In the foreground a Paduan mob throws stones at Philip on the cross. Some versions of the story say he was tied to his cross with ropes, others that he was hung upside-down from his ankles, but here he is affixed with nails "like his Master whom he had preached," with the nails plainly visible in his hands and feet.1 The parallel with Christ's crucifixion is also emphasized by the man standing in red above the crowd: a stone in his right hand, he raises his left exactly like the centurion in images of the crucifixion of Christ.

The men on horseback are also reminiscent of the Roman horsemen who crowd many Crucifixion images. Their leader, as the inscription tells us, is "the Duke and his cohort" — that is, Francesco il Vecchio (1350-88) and his men.2 The inscription further identifies the two men at Francesco's back as members of the Conti family, whose chapel this is. The painting is thus a sort of play-within-a-play, where the Paduans and especially the Contis re-enact the Hierapolitans' role in the death of St. Philip while Philip's own crucifixion re-enacts that of Christ. Enfolding these re-enactments is the chapel itself, where Christ's sacrifice on the cross is brought into the present through the Eucharistic liturgy.

In translation, the inscription below reads:

… [the Scythians] being converted to the faith. After that, when St. Philip the Apostle came to Hierapolis in Phrygia for the name of Christ he was affixed to a cross and stoned. The icons refer to the effigies of the Duke's cohort and of two associates, Ezzelino and Vidone, sons of Beroardus of Conti."

The partially obscured words about the Scythians relate to the saint's success in converting those people, which is narrated in the inscription at the top, which in translation says:

…should stand at the statue and pray to the God of Heaven. Suddenly a great dragon came out from beneath the statue and killed three men, namely the son of the priest who was performing the sacrifice and two tribunes. It also smote all the others who were there so that they fell to the ground as if dead. Philip ordered the dragon in the name of Christ to go into the desert and never harm anyone again. It went away forthwith and was never seen again. He cured the sick people and restored those three to life in the name of Christ. After that he baptized everyone and had them destroy the statue and raise the cross of Christ where the statue had been. And this was done.

This narrative is a shortened form of the account in the Golden Legend, with an increased emphasis on the erection of the cross, perhaps as a lead-in to the cross in the painting.3

This fresco is immediately on one's left when entering the Conti Chapel. The corresponding fresco on the right pictures St. James saving a merchant who had been imprisoned in a tower. Thus a person entering the chapel for the sacred liturgy is met by the twin truths of personal guilt and Christian redemption.

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Read more about images of St. Philip.
Read more about the Crucifixion.

Photographed at the chapel by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

1 See chapter 65 in the Golden Legend and the vitae and shorter texts published in the Acta Sanctorum (May vol. 1, 7-18).

2 Brennan, 39. I am indebted to Mr. Brennan for his clarification of the second half of the inscription at the bottom of the image and for providing the date.

3 In the Golden Legend the replacing of the idol with the cross is only implied, when Philip promises to the Scythians that he will revive the dragon's victims if they "believe…me and set in his place the cross of Jesu Christ."
  In Latin, the inscription reads: ???git an statuam staret et ad deum celi oraret. Subito Draco unus magnus de sub statua exivit. At tres interfecit, videlicet filium pontificis qui ignem ministrabat in sacrificio et duos tribunos. Omnes alios qui ibi erant sic interfecit ut quasi mortui ad terram caderent. Philippus draconi in nomine christi precepit ut in desertum ire et nunquam plus alicui noceret. Qui subito recessit nec unquam postea visus est. Sanavit et illos tres a morte suscitavit in nomine christi. Postea omnes baptizavit et statuam illam destrui fecit et crucem Christi ibidem levare mandavit ubi statua prius erat. Quod et factum est.
  The verb interfecit normally would mean the dragon "killed" the onlookers, but since the saint later "cured" them (sanavit) it seems to be carrying its more literal meaning of "put out of the way," the first meaning listed in Lewis and Short.