Martyrdom of St. Peter

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  • Oil on canvas, 1600
  • 230 x 175 cm
  • Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

The Crucifixion of St Peter in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo is the second Caravaggio paintings in the Cerasi Chapel. Although most art scholars prefer the Conversion of St. Paul, I must confess that this is my favorite picture. It shows the moment when Peter, the first Bishop of Rome, is crucified, upside down, in Nero's Circus.

Three shady characters, their faces hidden or turned away, are pulling, dragging and pushing the cross to which Peter has been nailed by the feet with his head down. This St Peter is not a heroic martyr, nor a Herculean hero in the manner of Michelangelo, but an old man suffering pain and in fear of death. The scene, set on some stony field, is grim. The dark, impenetrable background draws the spectator's gaze back again to the sharply illuminated figures who remind us, through the banal ugliness of their actions and movements&emdash;note the yellow rear and filthy feet of the lower figure&emdash;that the death of the apostle was not a heroic drama, but a wretched and humiliating execution.

Most surprising of all, Caravaggio has painted St Peter's body with his astonishing feeling for anatomy and the skin structure of an elderly male physique. At the same time, he has chosen the very instant when the Prince of the Apostles is raised into the undignified position in which he will be crucifie&emdash;upside-down.

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