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Peter, Saint

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The *apostle (Simon) Peter (d. c.64) features prominently in the New Testament and in the history of the Christian church. His importance is reflected in his very frequent appearance in art from the early Christian period and throughout the Middle Ages. He appears in a great variety of scenes (both scriptural and apocryphal) and is more often illustrated in art than any of the other apostles. He is also, traditionally, the author of the Epistles of Peter.

One of the first disciples to be summoned by Jesus, he and his brother *Andrew were fishermen who left their nets to follow Jesus. During Jesus’ life, Peter’s prominence among the disciples was reflected by his presence at the *Transfiguration and (in some versions) the *miracle of the *Raising of Jairus’s Daughter. Peter was (or had been) married, and Jesus’ healing of his mother-in-law is also recorded in the Gospels and illustrated in art. At the *Last Supper and *Washing of the Feet, Peter’s objection to Jesus’ humble actions and his eventual recognition of their significance form important subjects in art, as does Peter’s attempt to walk on water . Peter’s anger at the *Arrest and *Betrayal of Jesus are illustrated in scenes showing him with a sword, cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant. During the *Trials of Christ, Peter denied his relationship to Jesus three times while a cock crowed in the background at each denial, fulfilling Jesus’ earlier prophecy. This scene is frequently found in cycles of the Passion of Christ from the ninth century onward, as well as in earlier examples (e.g., included within scenes Page 196  showing the bearing of the *cross to *Calvary). A rooster is shown on top of a column while Peter speaks to the female servant in the courtyard or weeps grievously (e.g., *Matthew 26:69-75). Other episodes from the Gospels in which Peter features prominently include an incident in Capernaum (Matthew 17:24-27) when Jesus directed Peter to go to the sea and find a coin (in the mouth of a *fish) with which to pay the tribute required by the tax collectors and Jesus’ speech to Peter (Matthew 16:18-19) in which he describes Peter as the “rock” upon which the church will be built and promises Peter the “keys of the kingdom of *heaven.” In the early Christian period, this episode is often represented as, or combined with, the * Traditio legis (Giving of the Law; Saint *Paul may also be present); Jesus handing keys to Peter in the presence of the disciples also appears as an independent image. Hence, a key, or bunch of keys, is Peter’s chief iconographic attribute.

Peter also features frequently in the book of Acts, performing various miracles (healing a cripple, bringing *Tabitha back to life, and announcing the *death of the fraud Ananias and his wife Sapphira, who fell down dead at his words), seeing a vision of unclean beasts, and baptizing the centurion Cornelius and his companions, all of which subjects can be found in early Christian and medieval art. According to Acts 12:3-11, he was imprisoned under the orders of *Herod (Agrippa I) but miraculously released from prison by an *angel who appeared and helped him to escape. Peter’s chains fell away, and he was led out of prison by the angel. This subject became popular in the Romanesque period.

Many apocryphal stories of Peter are also frequently depicted in art. These largely derive from the second century Acts of Peter and include such episodes as his defeat of a magician and his meeting with a vision of Christ on the outskirts of Rome. He asked Christ where he was going (“Domine, quo vadis?”) , and Christ’s reply inspired Peter to return to Rome. The account of his *martyrdom is also found in the Acts of Peter; his request to be crucified upside down (as lesser than Jesus) was granted, and this subject appears in art especially from the Carolingian period onward. These episodes, and many others, are also found in the * Golden Legend .

Peter is generally represented as an older man, balding, or with short curly hair and a short beard. Although keys are his most frequent attribute (and he often appears in scenes of the *Last Judgment, holding keys and welcoming the blessed into *heaven), a rooster, crozier, upturned cross, and papal robes and tiara may also serve to identify Peter. His tomb and shrine in Rome were early honored and the site upon which *Constantine erected the basilica of Saint Peter, the cathedral of the bishop of Rome (the pope), of which Peter was traditionally considered the first.


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