In June 1715 Thornhill was officially awarded the much-coveted commission to decorate the dome of St Paul's Cathedral in London, for which he had been competing since 1709 (see Tate L01481). This small oil is one of a set of eight (see Tate L01482-5 and L01487-9) which probably forms a presentation set painted after the eight scenes from the life of St Paul as finally finished in the cupola. Thornhill strictly adhered to the 1709 and 1715 rulings that the dome be painted with figurative histories taken from the Acts of the Apostles, and that they be executed in monochrome, simulating sculptural relief. Thornhill worked on the cupola until 1717, for which he was paid £4,000, and on other areas of the dome until 1721 (see Tate L01482).
St Paul Preaching at Athens is the fifth episode in the cycle, which moves anti-clockwise round the dome starting with Paul's conversion positioned directly to the east. It is taken from Acts 17: 16-34. When at Athens, Paul's spirit 'was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatory'. He devoted himself to preaching daily in synagogues and marketplaces, and was invited to explain his faith before the Areopagus, the judicial council of Athens, which he duly did: 'Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious'.
Paul preaching at Athens was of great significance as the occasion when Dionysius, according to some early sources the first bishop of Athens, was converted to Christianity. It is probably Dionysius who stands in the foreground, Paul's gesticulating form and gaze directed towards him. Thornhill's composition has changed radically from his earlier, wholly Raphael-dependent treatment of it (see Tate L01480). Paul appears more formidable, his raised arm and hand pointing heavenward emphasising the wisdom and truth of his words and the power of preaching. The Anglican church placed great weight on preaching, seeing it as the cornerstone of Protestantism and the most important way to impress upon people the virtues and necessities of leading a Christian life. Paul was often presented as the preachers' surrogate.
Arline Meyer, Sir James Thornhill and the Legacy of Raphael's Tapestry Cartoons, exhibition catalogue, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University in the City of New York, 1996
Carol Gibson-Wood, 'The Political Background to Thornhill's Paintings in St Paul's Cathedral', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 56, 1993, pp.229-37
Edward Croft-Murray, Decorative Painting in England 1537-1837, I, London 1962, pp.73-4 and 271b