“The Assassination of St Peter Martyr”, c.1505-07, Giovanni Bellini. National Gallery London. A road, leading from a walled city, crosses the city moat and descends along the edge of a wide meadow, before it reaches the dense grove of trees, in which we witness the assassination of St Peter of Verona. There are a number of people in the background who seem to be having a normal day. In the grove we can see two men cutting down trees, their axes raised and about to swing. They do what woodsmen do. On the right, just on the edge of the grove, a shepherd with his dog lets his sheep rest in the shade of the trees. Maybe it is his child who is in the grove. This idyllic landscape has many of the hallmarks of Bellini’s other paintings, except that there is an odd and unsettling lack of symmetry. The long format and the row of tree trunks draw our attention to the road on which the saint walked. What is depicted here is the cold-blooded and rather gruesome murder of two Dominican friars. We feel the horror of what happened all the more because of the idyllic setting. On 6th April 1252 the Dominican Peter of Verona and his companion were assassinated in a wood while travelling from Como to Milan. First, they split his skull with an axe and then stabbed him through the heart. His companion survived long enough to tell how he heard Peter Martyr recite the creed as he died. It was said that as he died, the saint even wrote the word “credo”on the ground in his own blood. The assassins had been hired by some Cathars to whom Peter’s eloquent preaching had begun to pose a threat. The Pope reacted by canonising him within the year. There is a legend that on the day of his canonisation a Cathar master, living in Milan where the ceremony was due to take place, sent his servant out into a nearby wood to cut down some trees. The man was unhappy about this and prayed for a miracle. As he began to chop the trees, they began to bleed. Bellini combines this tradition with the actual martyrdom so that one scene can unfold the meaning of the other. The cuts on the trees are red as if they really beginning to bleed. However, as you might expect from Bellini, the blood is only just visible. It is the blows of the woodsman’s axe which speak to us of the violence inflicted on the saint. Now we understand why the shepherd is giving rest to his flock on the right. He is there so that we will recall the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep and of how St Peter’s death witnesses to our faith in him. Is the odd little boy with a staff in the woodland undergrowth meant to suggest John the Baptist, who also was martyred and is often depicted in art as a young boy? Another artist would have used blood and other gruesome detail to convey the violence suffered. Bellini uses the rural landscape in the Italian Spring to bring out the truth of what is happening. It is no accident that Peter falls to the ground with a gleaming sunlit city in his sights. Whether it is intended as Verona or Milan or the town nearest the spot where he was killed, it must surely do duty for the heavenly Jerusalem to which the saint is being admitted. The city is in our sights too. We are placed on the road which begins with the witness of St Peter and ends in that city of light. This road may indeed lead us through dark woods, but look at the beautiful horizontal band of light reaching us through the tree trunks. All along the way Bellini lets the light of heaven shine through the tree trunks. Above all, Bellini wants us to commit such beauty to memory so that it can beckon us forward on the road we continue to travel.
The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.
The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.