Saturday, May 21, 2011

Iconography of the Resurrection – Commission to Peter – The Good Shepherd Transfers Responsibility

GianLorenzo Bernini, Feed My Sheep
Bronze back panel from Cathedra Petri
Italian,
Vatican, St.  Peter's Basilica



“After Jesus had revealed himself to his disciples and eaten breakfast with them, he said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

He then said to Simon Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep."

John 21:15-17


Immediately following the mysterious breakfast on the shore of Galilee the Gospel of John presents us with this dialogue between the Risen Jesus and Peter. From the narrative it appears that the two are still in the presence of the other disciples named in the same chapter of John. What is this passage doing?

First, the three times repeated question “Do you love me?” and Peter’s three replies “ Lord, you know that I love you” are intended to erase Peter’s three denials in the early hours of Good Friday “I do not know the man”.

Then, the responses of Jesus: “Feed my lambs”, “Tend my sheep” and “Feed my sheep” represent a handing over to Peter of the role of Good Shepherd spelled out in John 10. Peter is now to be the shepherd of the sheep (John 10:2), the sheepgate (John 10:7) and the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). Like Matthew 16: 15-19 this passage seems to confirm Peter’s leadership of the Apostles and of the early church.

It is, therefore, surprising that very few works of art have focused on this scene, even among those commissioned by the Popes. Instead, most pictures, like the Sistine Chapel fresco by Perugino below) have focused on the text in Matthew:

“He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."
Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood 12 has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, 13 and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:15-19)

Pietro Perugino, Keys of the Kingdom
Italian, 1481-1482
Vatican, Sistine Chapel
Perhaps the lack of images of the shepherding commission may be due to the fact that the scene seems less dramatic and the images less powerful than that of the rock, the keys, the gates of hell and the binding and loosing. Yet, one could argue that the commission as Shepherd is at least as important and definitive, as that as the Rock and the Keeper of the Keys. It is the role of Guardian and Leader exercised by Peter and his successors.

In 1515 Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to prepare drawings for a series of tapestries to be displayed in the Sistine Chapel. The tapestries were commissioned to hang below the already existing frescoes in the Chapel, among them the Perugino above. They were planned to cover up what the painted images of hanging draperies that form the lowest register of the Sistine Chapel walls.
Raphael, Tapestries in situ, 2010
Vatican, Sistine Chapel
Part of the process of tapestry design was for the artist to create a full-sized tinted drawing, known as a cartoon, to guide the Belgian weavers who would produce the tapestries. These full scale drawings are now in the British Royal Collection and have been on permanent loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London since 1865. They were recently (September 8 – October 17, 2010) shown, together with the tapestries woven from them, when the tapestries were loaned to the V and A by the Vatican Museums. This was the first time that the drawings had been seen together with the completed tapestries since they were woven in the years between 1516 and 15211. As with all tapestries weaving took place from behind, so that the cartoons and the finished tapestries are mirror images of each other. 
Raphael, "Feed My Sheep" Cartoon
Italian, 1515
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Raphael, "Feed My Sheep" Tapestry
Flemish, 1516-1521
Vatican, Pinacoteca
In the composition of the Commission to Peter the two principal figures are seen to the side of the composition, Christ standing and gesturing to both the sheep and the kneeling figure of Peter, who holds the keys, symbolic of the text from Matthew. The other ten Apostles fill the other side of the composition. In the forefront of the group one can clearly see St. John with his traditionally beardless face and flowing hair. This emphasizes his role as eyewitness. The entire scene is set in a tranquil, lakeside landscape.

The tapestry displayed in situ in
the Sistine Chapel
The work is so majestic that one might almost say it was definitive. Very few other interpretations of the scene have been done and none have the scale or breadth of Raphael’s.

Peter Paul Rubens
Flemish, 1613-1615
London, Wallace Collection




In Rubens interpretation the background details have been eliminated and all the elements have been reduced. There are only two sheep and three additional Apostles (once again St. John is prominent). The figures are shown as half lengths and there is no background. All attention is drawn to the brightly lit figure of the Risen Lord, to His gestures and to Peter’s loving response. In addition, the subjects of the care of the flock and the giving of the keys have been conflated into a single image. So, we are seeing a composite of the texts of Matthew (keys) and John (sheep).


Claude Vignon, Christ Instructs St. Peter to Feed His Sheep
French, 1624
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum









Ten years after the Rubens was painted, the French painter Claude Vignon tackled the subject.  Vignon places the scene before s ledge or altar of some kind on which a book is placed.  On its open pages are Christ's words in the dialogue:  "Petre amas me" (Peter, do you love me?) on the left page and "Pasce oves meas" (Feed my sheep) on the right page.  Christ points to the book as He asks the questions.  The figure of Peter gives the answers with great intensity.  His outstretched left hand reaches across the body of Jesus, while his right is placed on his own chest to indicate the force of his sincerity.  There are no sheep in evidence nor any keys and only two other apostles, one of whom is only half in the picture.




In the mid seventeenth century Gianlorenzo Bernini produced two remarkable works on this subject for the one place on earth where they have particular meaning, not just as a record and reminder of a Biblical passage, but as a living command for Peter's successor, the Pope.  In 1646 Bernini carved the marble panel for the central doorway of St. Peter's Basilica with the subject of the Pasce oves meas.
Gianlorenzo Bernini, Pasce Oves Meas
Italian, 1646
Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica
The relief has all the grandeur of Raphael's image, including the outdoor setting, the number of apostles shown, the gestures of Christ and St. Peter and several sheep.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Back Panel of Chair of Peter
Italian, 1656-1666
Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica





Ten years later Bernini repeated the subject for the back of one of the most important works he ever did, the amazing Chair of Peter, which forms the focal point of the entire basilica.2   In spite of this work being in a different medium (cast bronze instead of marble), Bernini manages to include most of the same details: trees, sheep, an additional apostle, but he throws in a few angels as well.







James Tissot, Feed My Sheep
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum





In the late 1880s the French painter, James Tissot, began a huge number of watercolor paintings of the New Testament that are now in the Brooklyn Museum.  His interpretation focuses more on Peter’s responses than on the possible significance of the scene. There are no sheep in evidence, merely the other Apostles, who follow at a small distance, and the rocky shore. It is the gestures of Peter and Jesus that set the tone and evoke the words of John’s Gospel. The potential significance of the words and scene are not in evidence.





  1. For this event see: http://www.museivaticani.va/content/museivaticani/en/eventi-e-novita/iniziative/Eventi/2010/gli-arazzi-di-raffaello-in-sistina.html
  2.  See:  http://imaginemdei.blogspot.com/2013/03/sede-vacante-empty-chair.html




© M. Duffy, 2011, revised 2017