The Dominican friar and Inquisitor Pietro da Verona was killed in a wood by perceived heretics on 6 April 1252. Here he reaches towards a burst of heavenly light, accepting his murder for the cause of Christ. Cherubs prepare to descend from the clouds with Pietro’s martyr’s palm, while in the woods another assailant attacks his companion. The murderous events are at odds with the peaceful landscape – peasants load firewood onto their mule while others herd cattle, oblivious to the nearby crisis.
The painting is strongly influenced by Venetian depictions of this subject. The horizontal format and the setting recall at least two versions of the subject by Giovanni Bellini and his workshop. The pose of the assassin and Saint Peter Martyr (in reverse) are related to Titian’s destroyed altarpiece of 1525–30 for the church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Venice. The landscape is similar to other paintings attributed to Bernardino da Asola.
The subject of the painting is the assassination of the Dominican friar and Inquisitor Pietro da Verona on 6 April 1252. The story is told in the Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century book by the Dominican friar Jacopo de Voraigne which recounts the lives of saints. Pietro was killed in a wood by Cathars – considered heretical – who struck him in the head with a hatchet and wounded him in the chest with a sword. Known henceforth as Peter Martyr, Pietro da Verona was made a saint by the Catholic Church in 1253 and developed a flourishing cult. He became a particularly important figure for members of the Dominican Order, ranking alongside their founder Saint Dominic.
Here he reaches towards a burst of heavenly light, accepting his murder for the cause of Christ, as his assassin pins him to the ground and draws back his dagger ready to strike. According to a witness, with his dying breath Pietro called out the words of Christ on the Cross: ‘Into your hands, oh Lord, I entrust my soul.’ His last action was reportedly to write ‘Credo’ (‘I believe’) in his own blood on the ground. Here, cherubs prepare to descend from the clouds with his martyr’s palm. In the woods, other assailants attack Pietro’s companion, who is wounded but escapes. The murderous events are at odds with the peaceful landscape – peasants load firewood on to their mule, while others in the adjoining meadow herd cattle, oblivious to the nearby crisis.
The painting is strongly influenced by Venetian depictions of this subject. The horizontal format and the setting before a line of trees recalls at least two versions of the subject by Giovanni Bellini and his workshop, one of which is in the National Gallery’s collection. The motif of the peasants with their mule in the woods and the pose of the second Dominican friar also seem to relate to these precedents.
During the nineteenth century this painting was believed to be by Giorgione but is clearly from a later period. It has been dated to the 1540s on the basis of the assassin’s distinctive costume. The subject was particularly famous in Venice because of its treatment by Titian in an altarpiece of 1525–30 for the church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo. Titian’s altarpiece was destroyed in a fire in 1867 but is known from copies and engravings. The pose of the assassin and Peter Martyr in the National Gallery’s painting are related to those in Titian’s composition but in reverse. However, in Titian’s painting the trees sway wildly whereas in the National Gallery’s picture the bucolic landscape contrasts with, rather than reflects, the drama of the assassination. The landscape is similar to those in other paintings in the National Gallery’s collection attributed to Bernardino da Asola.
The painting has suffered damage in many places and been extensively restored, especially around the area of the assassin and the cherubs.
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