This may look like a portrait of an elderly man but his unusually dramatic expression suggests otherwise. He is Saint Peter, one of Christ’s apostles. We know this because his head is copied from a larger picture by El Greco, The Tears of Saint Peter (Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle), which focuses on the saint’s remorse – and repentance – at having denied his association with Christ.
This was a new subject in El Greco’s time and he made it his own, painting many versions. The original picture shows Saint Peter in a landscape, with Mary Magdalene visible in the background, walking away from Christ’s empty tomb after the Resurrection.
The scene emphasises the saint’s humanity through his sin and remorse. Such images were intended to strengthen support for the Catholic sacrament of Penance, which included confession, the message being that with repentance comes forgiveness.
This picture has the format of a portrait, showing only head and shoulders against a dark background, but the man’s intense and almost agonised expression suggests that it is not one. He strains upwards, looking at something beyond the picture; his eyes glisten with tears.
It is, in fact, a copy of the head of Saint Peter from El Greco’s Tears of Saint Peter, of which several versions exist; the best is in the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle. That picture shows the saint in a landscape, with Mary Magdalene visible in the background, walking away from Christ’s empty tomb after the Resurrection. Its focus is on Saint Peter’s grief for having denied knowing Christ in order to protect himself after the latter’s arrest. After his third denial ‘the Lord turned and looked upon Peter’, who ‘went out and wept bitterly’ (Luke 22: 61–62).
The subject was not common before El Greco’s time, but there was much demand for it during the Counter-Reformation period and the artist made it his own. The existence of numerous versions suggests that there was both demand and admiration for the way in which El Greco showed Saint Peter’s sorrow and repentance.
The scene emphasises the saint’s humanity through his sin and remorse, but the message is that with repentance comes forgiveness. As with many of El Greco’s paintings, the image of Saint Peter had meaning for the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation movement. The Catholic sacrament of Penance, which included confession, was under threat from Protestant reformers. Images like this offered reassurance of its validity and effectiveness, as well as promoting the papacy through the example of Saint Peter, the first Bishop of Rome – or pope.
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