“The Crucifixion of St Peter”, Carravaggio, 1602, Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. In September 1600, Tiberio Cerasi commissioned two paintings from Caravaggio to decorate the side walls of a chapel he had acquired in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. The subjects were the conversion of St Paul and the crucifixion of St Peter. Given that this was the first Church that pilgrims entered, once inside the walls of the city of Rome, the choice of these two saints is not new, but Caravaggio’s treatment of them is new. It is not Roman soldiers who crucify St Peter. It is three workmen wearing the same kind of clothes as the pilgrims themselves wore. Their dress suggests that this martyrdom is taking place not in the distant past, but in their own time. The men have nailed St Peter’s hands and feet to a wooden cross, and are attempting to stand the cross upside down in the earth so that St Peter will die upside down as he had asked. The shovel used to dig the hole lies on the ground and the blade glints in the light. The three are intent on their task. Their is no sign of emotion. They just get on with it. But the scene has the feel of a shameful deed that must be done under cover of darkness. One thinks of Edinburgh grave robbers. But now someone has spotted them. A light reveals what is happening. See how they strain to lift the cross. Their clothing lifts as they contort their bodies. But what is most unsettling is not their efforts, but their indifference. They might as well be lifting a stone or a pillar. St Peter is still conscious. You can see how his stomach is clenched in a sharp intake of breath in response to searing pain. He raises his head and torso. In the rather small Cerasi Chapel St Peter looks beyond the frame of the painting towards the chapel’s altar. In this way, we understand that for St Peter it is the sacrifice of Christ which is foremost in his thoughts. Tiberio Cerasi, who was very rich, had specified the use of the expensive blue pigment lapus lazuli. Caravaggio does use the pigment, but he tones it down from bright blue to the grey of the discarded garment on the right so that the earthiness of the work is undisturbed. You can almost smell the freshly dug clay. It clings to the feet of the man on the ground beneath the cross. St Peter’s rock is just a random stone boulder, unearthed from the ground. But the artist places it in the centre so that we cannot miss it. In this way it can symbolise not just St peter’s faith but that of the humble and contrite pilgrim. This scene bears comparison with many other depictions of Christ’s crucifixion. Here an anonymous worker shoulders St Peter’s cross, which evidently increases his suffering. He is a sort of anti-type to Simon of Cyrene. When Christ hung on the cross, it was in public. Here the viewer is the primary, and almost accidental, and secret witness. What we have stumbled upon in the dark is a hideous act perpetrated in the dark on night in a city which in this period was under curfew. Yet the light shows us that St Peter’s faith has not failed. But the pilgrim who has just arrived in Rome with sore and dirty feet, and a contrite heart, identifies, not with St Peter, but with the labourers who are crucifying him. From Santa Maria del Popolo, they will make their way through narrow dusty streets to the very place where St Peter died, asking there for his intercession, that Christ might strengthen their faith as once he had strengthened the faith of the repentant St Peter. St Peter pray for us.
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.