This scene tells the story of the murder of Saint Peter Martyr, a friar of the Dominican Order who was killed by members of the Cathars, a heretical sect whose teachings he had spoken against publicly. The saint is shown on the left – he has collapsed to his knees, an axe lodged in his skull. His killer makes a final blow to his chest with a dagger.
Until recent cleaning and restoration the picture was covered by layers of varnish which had darkened over time, as well as old repainting. The cleaning revealed the cleaver in the saint’s head, a characteristic feature of images of him. Cleaning also revealed that the dark tree trunks are interspersed with glimmers of bright summer light. This light is perhaps a promise of salvation – Peter’s life and his martyrdom for his faith led to him being declared a saint in 1253.
This scene tells the story of the murder of Saint Peter Martyr, a friar of the Dominican Order who was killed by members of the Cathar sect, whose teachings Peter and others had condemned as heresy. One of his murderers, Carino of Balsamo, later converted and became a Dominican himself. It’s highly unlikely that this was painted as an altarpiece – the narrative has no central focal point and is almost overwhelmed by the landscape setting, and the figures are on a small scale. It might have been painted for a meeting room or the side wall of a chapel.
If we read the picture from the top left, we move from expansive views to minute observations of nature – and to the violent drama of the scene. In the far distance, we see the peaks of a mountain range silhouetted against the light. Closer to us a winding road leads down the hillside to a walled town – complete with fortifications, towers and spires – which dominates the valley. This is probably Verona, where Saint Peter Martyr came from: two of the towers seem to represent the churches of Sant' Anastasia and San Zeno. A herdsman drives his cattle into the town. And in the bottom right corner, a little bird perches on a branch, near a scroll bearing Bellini’s signature.
The main action takes place far away from the serenity and order of the city and normal rural activities. On a dirt track in the forest two Dominican friars – they wear the Order’s black and white habits (uniform) – are pursued and attacked by the Cathar assassins. Saint Peter Martyr is shown on the left. He has collapsed to his knees, an axe lodged in his skull; his killer, Carino, makes the final blow to his chest with a dagger. The violence is screened by a thick copse of trees, and Bellini has placed a woodsman between the two assassins – he strikes at a tree trunk with his axe, emphasising the brutality of the event.
Until recent cleaning and restoration the picture was covered by layers of varnish which had darkened over time, as well as old repainting. The cleaning revealed the cleaver in Saint Peter’s head, a characteristic feature of images of him. Technical analysis also shows that the pose of his killer was altered during painting. The armour and helmet were afterthoughts, and Bellini eventually decided to show him in the act of plunging the dagger into the saint’s heart. The poses of the two pairs of figures are in fact identical to a version of the scene painted in 1509 by an artist close to Bellini (The Courtauld Gallery, London).
Cleaning also revealed that the dark tree trunks are interspersed with glimmers of bright summer light. This alternating rhythm of light and dark leads our attention rapidly from left to right, as though we are running alongside Peter’s companion as he flees his attacker. The glimpses of the sunlit pasture beyond might also be a promise of salvation – Peter’s life and his martyrdom for his faith led to him being declared a saint in 1253. By contrasting the claustrophobic enclosed track with the sunny mountains and bright sky, notably placed just above Peter’s head, Bellini seems to offer hope for redemption beyond the struggles of life and death.
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