Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Keys of the Kingdom

Christ Questioning the Apostles and Giving the Keys to Peter
From the Gospel Book of Otto III
German (Reichenau), c. 1000
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4453,fol. 60v

“Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and
He asked His disciples, “Whom do people say that the Son of Man is?” 
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 
Simon Peter said in reply,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 
Jesus said to him in reply,
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. 
For flesh and blood 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,
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.” 
Then He strictly ordered his disciples
to tell no one that He was the Christ.” 
Matthew 16:13-20 (Gospel for the Twenty-first Sunday of the Year, Year A)*

The important dialogue between Jesus and Peter that is related in this Gospel passage is one that has had profound importance for the development of the Church.  In it are contained the basis for the position of Peter among his fellow Apostles, for the primacy of Peter’s successors as Bishop of Rome in the authority of the Church, for the power of the papacy to guide the Church through time.  It is a passage that has been a problem for some, particularly during the development of the Protestant confessions, but it is one that has been celebrated frequently in Christian iconography from the earliest times.

Images of the “giving of the keys” or the “remission of the keys” or the “transfer of the keys” tend to fall into two principal types.  There are those that appear to be primarily symbolic, focusing only on the unadorned transfer of the keys from Jesus to Peter and there are those that set this event in the context of the complete Biblical passage.  In addition, there are also a few images that combine more than one Biblical text in their presentation of the transfer.   Usually, but not always, the scene is distinguished from the related depiction of the dialogue between the Risen Jesus and Peter on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in which Jesus asks Peter three times “Do you love me?” and, upon Peter’s triple “You know I love you”, tells him to “Feed my sheep” and “Feed my lambs”.   Clearly these two scenes establish Peter’s special responsibility for the direction of things following the Ascension, so it is obviously valid to relate them to one another.  And, finally, there are a few depictions that are unusual in one way or another.

Symbolic Images

Christ Giving the Keys to Peter
Mosaic from Mausoleum of Constantina
Roman, mid-4th Century, ca. 350
Rome, Santa Costanza

The earliest images, dating from the early Christian era through much of the middle ages and even into the modern era, are primarily symbolic images.  

Christ Presenting the Keys to St. Peter and the
Law to St. Paul
German (Westphalia) Ivory, c. 1150-1200
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters

Visually they represent the transfer in a somewhat abstract manner.  There is no specific reference to location or setting of the narrative in the Gospel.  Usually the only figures are Jesus and St. Peter, though occasionally there may be one or more disciples standing nearby.  This concentration of figures into two or three distinguishes these images from the related “Traditio Legis” images (see here), which are also symbolic in nature.  In the Traditio legis images, which refer to the last instruction of Jesus to His disciples just before the Ascension, there are usually a larger number of figures, Christ is enthroned or is standing in the “philosopher” pose.  In the images of the transfer of the keys, both figures are usually standing, facing each other, and the keys are clearly being handed to Peter by Jesus.

These images begin to appear quite early, in fact shortly after the emergence of Christianity as a favored religion of the Roman Empire, i.e., in the middle of the fourth century, just a few decades after the issue of the Edict of Milan (313AD) by Constantine I.  In the mausoleum known as Santa Costanza in Rome, built for the burial of one of Constantine’s daughters, an apse mosaic offers the first depiction of the event.    In spite of the destruction that occurred during the late antique and early medieval period, we can trace it thereafter in a number of media:  manuscript painting, ivory carving, metalwork, sculpture and panel painting.

Christ Presenting the Keys to Peter
Enamel plaque
English, c. 1170-1180
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Christ Presenting the Keys to Peter
from a Gospel Lectionary
German (S. Swabia), 1200-1225
London, British Library
MS Egerton 809, fol. 41r

Catalan Master of St. Mark. Christ Presenting the Keys to Peter
from Breviari d'Amor by Matfre Ermengau of Beziers
Spanish (Catalan), c. 1375-1400
London, British Library
MS Yates Thompson 31, fol. 229r (detail)

Lorenzo Venziano, Christ Presenting the Keys to Peter
Italian, 1380
Venice, Museo Correr

They become less plentiful toward the end of the middle ages, but never disappear entirely.

Giovanni Battista da Cassignola, Christ Presenting
the Keys to Peter
Italian, 1569
Rome, Church of Sant'Agostino

Dedication leaf, Christ Presenting the Keys to Peter
from an Address by the Diocese of Cologne to the Pope
German, 1848
Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

Narrative Images

The narrative images, which mainly (though not entirely) superseded symbolic images by the end of the middle ages, show from the beginning a greater emphasis on the complete text of the Gospel passage, including more disciples in the picture.

Master of the Book of Pericopes of Henreich II, Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter
From the Book of Pericopes of Henry II
German (Reichenau), 1007-1012
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4452, fol. 142v

Christ Presenting the Keys of the Kingdom to Saint Peter
From the 
Sermons of Maurice de Sully
Italian, c. 1320-1330
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 187, fol. 35v

Masters of Otto van Moerdrecht, Christ Presenting the Keys to Peter
From History Bible
Dutch (Utrecht), ca. 1430
The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek
MS 78 D 38 II, fol. 167r

Master of St. Catherine, Triptych with Scenes from the Lives of Job and St. Peter
Flemish, c. 1485-1490
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum

The earliest do not make reference to any kind of setting or location, as this was not a preoccupation of earlier medieval art.  But as the abilities of the artists and the interest of their patrons in the natural world grew, the scene quickly began to be moved into a recognizable landscape.  By the late fifteenth century, the complete inclusion of great detail and intent to show the scene as it might have transpired had been achieved.

Pietro Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter
Italian, c. 1481-1482
Vatican City, Apostolic Palace, Sistine Chapel

The culmination of this stage can be seen in the great fresco by Pietro Perugino that adorns the mid-level wall of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.   From this and the tapestry by Raphael that also hung in the Sistine (see below) later generations of artists simply repeated the formula.

Giambattista Castello, Christ Gives the Keys to Peter
Italian, 1598
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Ambrogio Buonvicino, Christ Presenting the Keys to Peter
Italian, c. 1612-1614
Vatican City, St. Peter's Basilica

Guido Reni, Christ Presenting the Keys to Peter
Italian, c. 1620
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Palma Giovane (Palma the Younger)
Italian, 1625
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library

Nicolas Poussin, Ordination or Christ Giving the Keys to Peter
From the first set of The Seven Sacraments
French, c. 1636-1637
Fort Worth, Kimball Art Museum

Pierre Bergaigne, Christ Gives the Keys to Peter
French, 1675-1700
Lille, Musée des Beaux-Arts

By the late Baroque period much drama was added to the scene, including swirling clouds inhabited by angels demonstrating their reactions to the events and sometimes holding symbolic references to the papal office.

Giambattista Pittoni, Christ Giving the Keys of Paradise to Saint Peter
Italian, c. 1730-1735
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Matthaeus Guenther, Christ Presenting the Keys to Peter
German, 1740
Mittenwald, Church of Saints Peter and Paul

James Tissot,  The Primacy of Peter
French, c. 1888-1896
New York, Brooklyn Museum
(Tissot shows the moment of Peter's statement, just before Jesus responds by confiding the keys.)

Crossover Images

Along with the symbolic and narrative traditions there are images that combine the event described by St. Matthew and that described by St. John (John 21:15-19), that is the dialogue at the Sea of Galilee following the Resurrection.  Often, it is hard to tell them apart, since they may or may not include the sheep.  One thing is, however, constant in these images and distinct from images depicting the passage from Matthew.  Jesus is always shown in his distinctively post-Resurrection garb.  This is that He appears naked above the waist, except for a loosely draped cloth.  These images all appear in the later, Baroque, period and draw their inspiration from Raphael’s beautiful tapestry design for the Sistine Chapel.  For more on the tapestry designs, see here and here.

Raphael, Christ's Commission to Saint Peter
Cartoon for the Sistine Chapel Tapestry

Italian, 1515
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Otto van Veen, The Risen Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter
Flemish, 1608
Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Peter Paul Rubens, The Risen Christ Gives the Keys to Peter
Flemish, c. 1613-1615
Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie

Jan Boeckhorst, The Delivery of the Keys to Saint Peter
Flemish, c. 1660
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Unusual Images

There are also a few unusual images of the scene that I have found in my review.  One is by the fifteenth century (Quattrocento) Venetian painter, Carlo Crivelli.  It shows St. Peter receiving the keys not from the adult Jesus in a real world setting, but from the Infant Jesus, seated on His mother’s knees.  The scene is clearly shown as taking place in heaven, for mother and child are seated on a throne and surrounded by saints who are bishops and what appear to be Franciscan friars, one presumably being St. Francis and the other St. Anthony of Padua. 

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints
Italian, 1488
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der 
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Finally, there is the unusual version of the scene created in relief by Donatello, the great fifteenth-century Florentine sculptor.  Donatello sets his depiction at the moment of the Ascension.  Jesus bends down to transfer the keys from what appears to be a throne that is rising toward the sky (indicated by its position relative to the trees and by the disciple who gestures upward). 

Donatello, Ascension with the Giving of the Keys
Italian, c. 1428-1430
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Peter With the Keys

Of course, the keys are the great symbol of Peter’s authority, frequently used throughout the history of western art.  They are his primary iconographic symbol, seen from the far West to as far East as Russia, a steady reminder of the power to bind and to loose that was given to him by the Lord.

Anonymous Romanesque Sculptor, St. Peter
The Egmond Tympanum
Dutch, c. 1112-1132
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Theophanes, St. Peter
Greek, c. 1388
Moscow, Cathedral of the Annunciation

Fra Carnevale, Saint Peter
Italian, c. 1450s
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

© M. Duffy, 2014, Images updated 2024


Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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