Thursday, June 30, 2011

Peter, Paul and Caravaggio

Cerasi Chapel, S. Maria del Popolo, Rome
(In reality, never as brightly lit as this photo)

Today is the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. The two are generally seen as the pillars of the early Church. Peter the Apostle chosen by Jesus to lead the Church into the future and Paul the convert and Apostle to the Gentiles. Between them they established the fledgling Church, carrying the Word far beyond the confines of Palestine and into the Greco-Roman world. And they both suffered martyrdom under the Emperor Nero.

They are also frequently seen together in artistic creations. In 2008 I wrote about Raphael’s inclusion of the two saints in his tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. Today I would like to look at the two paintings by Caravaggio in the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.

Completed around 1600 they have long been recognized as being among the finest works of Caravaggio’s early maturity. Typical of his work they feature startlingly realistic figures seen in strong chiaroscuro (dark/light). In the space of the tiny Cerasi chapel, they are overwhelming in their impact on the viewer.

I have already written about the Conversion of St. Paul (here)

Caravaggio, Conversion of St. Paul
Italian, 1600
Rome, S. Maria del Popolo, Cerasi Chapel

Facing it is the Martyrdom of St. Peter. As with the Conversion of St. Paul this is an exceptionally intimate experience.  We see St. Peter as he is being raised on the cross, head first, as tradition suggests. The three executioners, none of whose faces we can see clearly, strain to raise the cross. Only Peter’s face is visible. It is as though we were among the witnesses to his crucifixion.  Perhaps it is our own hands that have driven the nails into his.  This interpretation is suggested by the fact that we see his body turned in our direction and his eyes directed toward the nails. 

Caravaggio, Martyrdom of St. Peter
Italian, 1600
Rome, S. Maria del Popolo, Cerasi Chapel

Such visionary immediacy is typical of the early Baroque. The intent is to involve the viewer of a work of art as immediately as possible, to force us to place ourselves in the position of participants, even to shock. It is a way of making the past real to us, part of our time.  We are called to both compassion and sorrow, even to guilt for our own sins. 

© M. Duffy, 2011

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