Michelangelo Merisi (Caravaggio) (1571 - 1610)
The Denial of St Peter
Oil on canvas,
94 x 125 cm
Formerly in the Shickman Gallery, New York, now in The Metropolitan Museum, New York
The scene depicted is narrated in all four Gospels.
Matthew 26:69–75 describes it thus:
"69 Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. You also were with Jesus of Galilee, she said.
70 But he denied it before them all. I don't know what you're talking about, he said.
71 Then he went out to the gateway, where another girl saw him and said to the people there, This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.
72 He denied it again, with an oath: I don't know the man!
73 After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.
74 Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, I don't know the man! Immediately a cock crowed.
75 Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: Before the cock crows, you will disown me three times. And he went outside and wept bitterly."
At one time this scene was part of the depiction of the Passion. After the Counter-Reformation, the emphasis changed to Peter`s repentance after the denial.
Caravaggio cuts the scene down to an inter-action between three figures: the servant girl, Peter and one other man.
Caravaggio`s father died when he was six. His mother died when he was nineteen. A brother Giovan Pietro died at an early age.
When the mother died there was only Caravaggio, his brother Giovan Battista (a Jesuit priest) and his sister Caterina.
Caravaggio was estranged from them.
In a recent account of Caravaggio`s life, there is a sad story indicating how bad the relationship had become:
"[O]ne of the most affecting moments in any account of Caravaggio’s life is the melancholy encounter that took place in the Palazzo Madama, the official residence of Cardinal del Monte, between the artist and his brother Giovan Battista, a Jesuit priest.
There was obviously bad blood dating back to their adolescent years in Spanish Lombardy when so many of their relations died of the plague, and Carlo Cardinal Borromeo held sway in Milan. ...
Finding himself ambushed in a semi-public setting, Caravaggio sullenly denied his brother three times, a not particularly subtle allusion to Mark 14: 66–68.
Mancini implies that he was himself present when this occurred, and even noted the tender sorrow with which Giovan Battista departed without so much as a goodbye from Caravaggio, assuring him of the constancy of their sister’s prayers. Mancini made no further comment about the episode, nor tried to account for its meaning, or even to proffer context
The work is a late work of Caravaggio, executed just before his death. The work seems gloomy laden with guilt. Apparently the dispute with his brother centred on a claim by Caravaggio that when some family land in Caravaggio was sold, he did not receive his due (more than the other two) as the eldest son. There was probably more to it than this. There always is.
In his short but eventful life Caravaggio had received pardons for several crimes through the intercession of several influential patrons. At the end of his life he was awaiting pardon from the consequences of a killing. However he felt that because of his crime his life was going to be forfeit. Perhaps he recalled an earlier part of St Matthew`s Gospel which again involved St Peter (Matthew 18: 21 - 35):
"21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?
22 Jesus answered, I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.
24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.
25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.'
27 The servant's master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.
28 But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow- servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.
29 His fellow- servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'
30 But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.
33 Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow- servant just as I had on you?'
34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."