“Denial of St Peter” 1601- 1607/10, Caravaggio, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. You can see this picture in higher resolution at
The story of St Peter’s denial of Jesus is told in all four gospels. Although the general shape of the story is there in each, the details vary slightly. For example, Matthew, Mark and Luke say that St Peter wept, whereas John doesn’t. Caravaggio manages to include much of the details given in these narratives in a single scene. The general shape of the story is as follows. When Jesus was arrested St Peter had followed at a distance and stood with others warming himself at a fire in the courtyard of the high priest. A servant girl said to him, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus. “ (Mk 14: 67) He denied it. But then she said it to some bystanders. Again St Peter denied it. Finally, the bystanders said it to him as well and, for the third time, he denied knowing Jesus. This time he swore, “I do not know this man of whom you speak” (Mk 14: 71). Then the cock crowed for the second time and St Peter remembered the words of Jesus, “Before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times.” Mark says that then St Peter broke down and wept (Mk 14:72). In this picture Caravaggio includes elements of all three denials and, indeed, St Peter’s tears. The fire is suggested in the background with a few flecks of bright pigment. But it is the hands of the three characters that tell the story and with great economy. The raking light from the right lights up the face of the young woman in the centre. She looks back at the bystander but points towards Peter. In fact both of her hands point at St Peter. The third figure also points a finger at St Peter. In this way all three denials are represented. St Peter’s hands are closed on his chest. Is this a gesture of denial or repentance?The bystander wears a helmet, strongly suggesting that he is a soldier. In fact, the particular helmet used is a contemporary one. This detail is not in the gospels but it conveys just how close St Peter came to being arrested. The soldier wears armour which reflects the light. This reflection recalls a number of Caravaggio’s other scenes from the Passion, not least “The Taking of Christ”, which is now in Dublin the reflection is balanced against the light on St Peter’s face and hands. Are we meant to see ourselves reflected in the armour? The close up format has already drawn us in, connecting us with the scene and its reflection in our own lives. The finest part of the painting is the face of St Peter. The tears are beginning to form in his eyes. His look is one of immense sorrow. It is extraordinary.
This may be one of the two last works painted by Caravaggio. Most people agree that it was painted in the last months he spent in Naples before he departed on his fateful voyage to Rome. By September 1609 he had returned to Naples where he was given rooms by a branch of the Colonna family. Two of his biographers suggest that he needed the protection of the Colonna family from various enemies who were pursuing him. Negotiations for a Papal pardon were also underway which if granted would allow him to return to Rome. However, on 24 October Caravaggio paid a visit to a tavern and on leaving was ambushed by a group of men who were waiting for him outside. One of Caravaggio’s of injuries was a cut to the face. This was a common form of revenge for an insult to someone’s reputation. It would seem that his injuries were so severe that it took Caravaggio some time to recover. There is no evidence of Caravaggio doing anything much before May 1610. Then there are two final paintings: this one and another entitled “The Martyrdom of St Ursula”, which is still in Naples. The latter is well-documented and can be dated to that summer before his departure from Naples. It is thought that this painting was painted around the same time. In these last years of his life, Caravaggio painted quickly. Light pierces a pervading and largely undefined darkness. But experts say that the handling of paint in “The Denial of St Peter”, shows a loss of manual dexterity and that, although the extent of his injuries are not know for sure, there may even have been a loss of sight. In one sense you could say that although this is one of his last works, it is not his finest. It lacks the careful modelling of flesh tones and shadows which made his works so life-like. And yet on the right St Peter is portrayed with such extraordinary power. This subject is unusual in Italian painting. St Peter’s denial was usually shown as a part of Passion sequence. As a stand-alone narrative, artists or patrons tended to choose Peter’s repentance rather than his denial. There are a great many paintings which simply show St Peter weeping. Clearly, Caravaggio puts the focus on the denial, but he does not exclude the moment of repentance. This pivotal moment is subtly and very powerfully captured. It is perhaps all the more powerful when you see in it evidence of Caravaggio’s own diminishment. St Peter pray for us.
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