Beauty in Death: Crucifixion of Saint Peter

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Beauty in Death

An Investigation of the Divine Demise 
Curated by Tommy Dunn

Caravaggio, Crucifixion of Saint Peter, 1600

Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of Saint Peter depicts Peter’s death in an unusual way. While being crucified upside down would certainly feel both painful and humiliating, Saint Peter betrays little emotion as the assistants raise him up on his cross. Rather than seeming timid or fearful, Peter appears in control of the procedure. His muscular arms seem perfectly capable of ripping the cross into splinters. The laborers complete the inversion of power. Rather than lording over him, they seem to struggle to lift Saint Peter’s holy mass up onto the cross. All of them have their faces averted in reverence, and they seem to melt into the background. Only Saint Peter himself is illuminated. His skin looks bleached, but he exudes power. His muscles combined with a full beard illustrate his power. His face sags with fatigue, but he does not look defeated. I think the stark relief created by the lighting injects emotion into the piece. The deep, dark spaces add gravity to the painting. They seem like spaces beckoning Saint Peter to his grave. However, Saint Peter is protected, bathed in holy light. He stares into the source of the light.

This painting shows the serenity of the holy figure in the face of adversity contrasted with his obvious impending doom. Whether a martyrdom painting was created to protest a war or to advance a religious ideology, it almost invariably contains these two themes. Additionally, this painting exemplifies how a great painter like Caravaggio can create true beauty from even the most intense suffering.

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