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Saint Peter denies Christ

Saint Peter denying Christ

Pensionante del Saraceni. National Gallery of Ireland – Dublin. 1610-1620.

We continue the account of Matthew.

While Jesus was before Caiaphas, Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard, and a servant-girl came up to him saying, “You, too, were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it in front of them all. “I do not know what you are talking about,” he said. When he went out in the gateway another servant-girl saw him and said to the people there, “This man was with Jesus the Nazarene.” And again, with an oath, he denied it, “I do not know the man.” A little later, the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “You are certainly one of them too! Why, your accent gives you away.” Then he started cursing and swearing, “I do not know the man.” And at once the cock crowed, and Peter remembered what Jesus had said, “Before the cock crows you will have disowned me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly. G38

This story is important in the life and in the message of Jesus, for Peter was the man on whom he would build his church. Peter would be the first Pope and the most venerated of all the apostles. Yet Jesus predicted that this same Peter in whom he had put most of his faith for the continuance of the message of God, would deny him three times. This tale brings back Peter among the humans. Humans can err, and they can act cowardly. Jesus needed to prove for all the next generations that he knew the faults of humans, their limitations and weakness under temptation. Yet, with all the imperfections of humans, Jesus had chosen a very common man to lead his church. It was a sign for eternity that Jesus was well aware of the nature of men but that notwithstanding the imperfections of even a Peter, men could proclaim the message of the kingdom of heavens. Jesus also did not pick a man from the learnt elite of his country, or a powerful man of wealth. His message of the hearth appealed to simple men first; intellectuals would have to be persuaded by arguments instead of by intuition and by emotional appeal. Peter was a fisherman.

The painter Pensionante del Saraceni who was active in Rome between 1610 and 1620, made a picture of ‘Saint Peter denying Christ’. Pensionante del Saraceni had known Caravaggio and this picture is completely in the style of the great Roman renovator. In fact Pensionante was a now unidentified artist, only called the ‘Boarder of Saraceni’. His existence was derived by Italian art historians from style differences in painters around Caravaggio and more particularly of the environment of Carlo Saraceni. This Carlo Saraceni (1579-1620) was active in Rome in the circle of Caravaggio. Pensionante del Saraceni may have been a French artist, but all attempts at identifying him with the major French painters working in Rome have failed. There are only twelve paintings associated with this painter.

The picture is very vivid and painted in all realistic detail, as would have done Caravaggio. Saint Peter is shown arguing with a servant-girl. The girl is talking on the right; Peter is sitting on the left. The girl argues with her hands, she stresses her words with her outstretched, showing hands. Peter however holds one hand in a gesture of refusal in front of him. With the other hand he holds his breast as if saying, “On my heart, it wasn’t me!” Pensionante thus could depict vividly the contents of the conversation although pictures have no words. He made several pictures in which movement is thus indicated by gestures alone and he did not use Caravaggio’s very dynamic style of oblique lines. The Pensionante’s picture is more restful, quieter than the works of the great master. Light falls in a Caravagesque way though, like a shaft from the left, forming Peter’s old, worn-out face as well as the young, arguing servant-girl. The light falls right on the white headdress of the girl, thus also bringing a vivid colour in the scene.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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