The Crucifixion of St Peter

Keywords: CrucifixionPeter

Work Overview

The Crucifixion of St. Peter
Artist Michelangelo
Year circa 1546–1550
Type Fresco
Dimensions 625 cm × 662 cm (246 in × 261 in)
Location Cappella Paolina, Vatican Palace, Vatican City

The Crucifixion of St. Peter is a fresco painting by the Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo Buonarroti (c. 1546–1550). It is housed in the Cappella Paolina, Vatican Palace, in the Vatican City, Rome. It is the last fresco executed by Michelangelo.

The artist portrayed St. Peter in the moment in which he was raised by the Roman soldiers to the cross. Michelangelo concentrated the attention on the depiction of pain and suffering. The faces of the people present are clearly distressed. Pope Paul commissioned this fresco by Michelangelo in 1541 and unveiled it in his Cappella Paolina.

Restoration of the fresco completed in 2009 revealed an image believed to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo himself.[1] The figure is standing in the upper left corner of the fresco, wearing a red tunic and a blue turban. Blue turbans were often worn by Renaissance sculptors to keep the dust out of their hair.

St. Peter is known by his many attributes, as “rock of the church,” the “first vicar of Christ,” or the first Pope. These attributes, specially the latter, made him the subject of many works of art in the Vatican. St Peter is depicted receiving the keys to the kingdom of Heaven from Christ on the wall of the Sistine chapel in Perugino’s The Delivery of the Keys. Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to paint yet another fresco of St Peter around the year 1545.[2] In contrast to themes of power and glory depicted by Perugino, Michelangelo elected to paint a much darker moment in the saint’s life. St Peter’s status as a major martyr is not only because he was the “first vicar of Christ,” but also because he was, like Christ, crucified. Although his final request is not mentioned in the canonical New Testament, it was popularly believed (due to the Apocryphal text known as the Acts of Peter) that he demanded: Crucify me head downwards, for I am not worthy to die as my master died.[3] The Crucifixion fresco is situated on the eastern wall of the Pauline Chapel, which is significant because that is the location in which the cardinals have always held their elections for a new pope.

The backdrop to the scene is a minimally elaborated mountainous background. Michelangelo did not render this background in great detail. Vasari states, “There are no landscapes to be seen in these scenes, nor any trees, buildings or other embellishments and variation.”[5] The mountains are painted in a faint blue hue, which perhaps is intended to increase the depth of field through atmospheric perspective. The land represented in the middle ground and foreground is a pale yellow-green that is in some places more of a yellow ochre in color. The only real vertical elements in the painting are the figures, which occupy most of the foreground. Many clusters of people surround a single large central figure that is mounted on a crucifix. The most impressive formal attribute of this painting (besides its considerable size) is its central compositional element. Unlike the many prior representations of the martyrdom of Peter, this one depicts the raising of the cross- the moment before the crucifixion has truly begun.[6] The angle of the crucifix activates the composition and creates much more dynamism in what might otherwise be a static image. The strong diagonal creates a cyclical visual pattern for the eyes to follow. If one reads the painting from left to right, the figures ascending the steps on the bottom left lead the eye upward towards a cluster of equestrian figures. They direct the eye to the group of people located on the top right corner, which in turn lead to one end of the crucifix. The other end of the crucifix points again to the men who are climbing up the steps. Michelangelo also created many strong diagonals with the placement of his figures and the extension of their arms and legs towards a central point of convergence. The position of St Peter's body in this work is often noted as Michelangelo's most interesting innovation. He defied convention by placing Peter’s upper body so that he needs to crane upward and twist his neck to make eye contact with the viewer's gaze. This is a far cry from the painted visages of the final moments of countless martyrs, which is typically a passive uplifted gaze. The saint’s penetrating stare suggests that he demands the witness of his audience; he demands their focus and gaze, and beseeches that his sacrifice not be deemed in vain.

These frescoes initially were derided from the very moment of their unveiling.[7] Most of the criticism focused on what was considered a blatant disregard for proportion. Some attributed the failure of these frescoes to the artist’s advancing age and declining health. Later, some scholars attributed the disproportionate nature of the figures to a Michelangelo's active pursuit of mannerist technique. Steinberg refutes these claims by positing the fact that the characteristic stocky, muscular figures in this piece do not coincide with the lithe ideal body type preferred by mannerists.[8] Yael Even states that Michelangelo even went so far as to imbue the mourning female figures present in the painting with a more masculine quality.[9]

Newer Interpretations
These frescoes were largely ignored for centuries and incurred a great deal of damage due to neglect. In the early twentieth century there were some scholars who came to reconsider the frescoes under the new light of expressionism and abstraction. The frescoes were restored in 1934 as a result of this newfound interest and the subsequent appreciation the paintings garnered.[10] It was not until fairly recently (in the late 1980s) that a scholar by the name of William Wallace proposed an entirely new perspective on the subject. Wallace claims that the disproportionate quality of the figures is not a failing on the part of Michelangelo, but rather another instance of his genius. It is not even an instance of something new. In this particular case, Michelangelo used proportion in order to compensate for certain discrepancies caused by different perspectives. He designed the frescoes in accordance to what the viewer on the ground would see rather than the “ideal” frontal view most people see in photographs or reproductions.[11] This proclivity for manipulating proportions for the sake of perspective or aggrandizing effects is something Michelangelo is known for. He has notably employed these methods with the Moses statue he carved for the tomb of Pope Julius II.[12]

Time and Space
According to Wallace, the real innovation in this piece comes from the incorporation of time and space in the overall composition of the frescos. He postulates that Michelangelo designed the composition for these frescoes with the notion that they would be viewed as one walks down the center aisle of the narrow chapel in a processional manner. The appearance of both frescoes changes significantly as one walks from one end of the chapel to the other.[13] The most popular point of contention in the case of The Crucifixion of St. Peter is the inordinately large representation of Peter himself. While Peter is in fact grossly disproportionate from the “ideal” frontal view, he is perfectly proportionate (and more important, always visible) from every other vantage point. Michelangelo actually used perspective to make the image something one can experience over time, giving it a somewhat “cinematic quality.”[14]

Architectural and Environmental Context
Wallace states that in addition to conceiving of these frescoes in terms of perspective, Michelangelo also took into consideration the architectural and environmental context they were to be set in. The Conversion of St. Saul (or St. Paul) is often discussed in conjunction with The Crucifixion of St. Peter. In large part this is because the two frescoes were commissioned together, but this can also be attributed to how the two images were created as foils of one another. The Conversion of St. Paul (as its title suggests) represents the conversion of a lawyer from Tarsus named Saul (a man who prosecuted Christians) into a follower of Christ.[15] In the book of Acts Paul states that he saw an impossibly bright light and heard the voice of Christ himself. The blindingly bright light is the Apex of this story; it is because of this that Michelangelo chose to situate this painting on the Western wall with the eastern exposure – so that the lunette situated above The Crucifixion of St. Peter would provide a bright light to illuminate it throughout the day. Conversely, with The Crucifixion of St. Peter being a much darker story, it is situated on the eastern wall that faces west. Due to the obstruction caused by an adjacent building, this fresco is only lit for a very limited period of time at the very end of the day.[16] Some speculate that this is part of the reason why it has been overlooked for so long. Wallace proposes that Michelangelo intended for this contrasting darkness to highlight the severity of the subject matter.

Limited Accessibility
Ultimately, despite the efforts of contemporary scholars to illustrate the genius behind these works, they remain relatively obscure. This is due primarily to the fact that tourists are not permitted to enter the Pauline chapel because it is a sacred space. Most of those who do know of these works will never have the opportunity to see them in person. According to Williams no other work by Michelangelo has ever been so grossly misrepresented in reproductions. The only way to view these works as the artist intended them to be seen is to see them in situ.

Tradition had it that St Peter was captured and crucified head-down in Rome during the reign of Nero, between 64 and 67. The event is not described in the Bible.

Despite his painful position, Peter shows great will-power. The women in the foreground are trembling with fear. The Romans in the background seem to be having an argument. One of them asks for silence.

The fresco has a nice composition. Peter draws all attention, being in the center and in a lighter spot. Some of the figures are out of proportion, like the women in the foreground.

Fifty years after Michelangelo completed his fresco, Caravaggio used Michelangelo's Peter for his version of the event.

This is the second of two large frescoes Michelangelo made in Paul's Chapel (Cappella Paolina) in the Vatican. The other one shows The Conversion of Saul. The chapel was built as a private chapel for pope Paul III.

According to tradition, Peter was at his own wish crucified upside down, either on the Janiculum hill or in a circus arena between two metae, the pair of turning-posts or conical columns set in the ground at each end of the course. Artists have used both settings, depicting Peter on the cross at the moment of being lifted by soldiers, often surrounded by onlookers, or already raised in position, with a small group of women standing by in allusion to the similar group at Christ's crucifixion. A vision of the apostle's crucifixion appeared to Peter Nolasco.

In Michelangelo's composition everything is centred in the fearful event; in triumph over pain and suffering. Solace comes from the spectacle of fortitude, confidence and will-power; the intrepid character of Saint Peter. As in the fresco of St Paul, the main protagonists fits into an ellipse placed in the centre of the cross, extended on four sides by the disposition of the figures. This device lends to the design a clarity and strength which is absent from the restless Damascus scene, because there the fallen Saul appears suspended in mid-air at the lower edge of the picture, and the accompanying figures occupy different levels of space. In the Crucifixion, on the other hand, most of the figures are vertical; only those near the centre give the impression of rotating round the martyr. Their features betray the utmost horror, especially those of the women on the lower right who tremble with terror, and several onlookers seem on the verge of madness.