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In June 1715 Thornhill was officially awarded the much-coveted commission to decorate the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, for which he had been competing since 1709 (see Tate L01481). This small oil is one of a set of eight (see Tate L01482 and L01484-9) 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).
This second episode in the cycle, St Paul Preaching before Sergius Paulus, is taken from Acts 13: 6-12. Paul and Barnabas, when preaching in Paphos in Cyprus, were sent for by the governor of the region, Sergius Paulus, but Elymas, a sorceror, tried to prevent them speaking the word of God. The exact moment in the narrative that Thornhill illustrates is the blinding of Elymas: 'Then Saul, … filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him [Elymas], And said, O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness'.
Thornhill's composition is not so dependent on Raphael's (1483-1520) tapestry cartoon (circa 1514-16) of the same theme as his earlier design was (see Tate L01481). However, it shares many elements, as well as the general desire to achieve clarity about the moment depicted and to convey the gravity and wonder of the moment through gesture. Elymas gropes forward in the same way, his arms stretched before him indicating his blindness, while Sergius Paulus raises his arms in amazement at the power of Paul's faith.
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