“The Denial of St. Peter”, by Caravaggio
Regular readers of this site know that I try to find big, easy-to-get with examples of emotional insight.
Emotional insight is what a work of art communicates: insights into the meaning of things that your heart — your heart alone — sees.
Today we’re going to be looking at a painting by Caravaggio.
The painting dramatizes the denial of St. Peter. As you may know, in the Bible, Peter denies three times that he is a disciple of Jesus:
60 And the high priest stood up in the midst, and asked Jesus, saying, Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee?
61 But he held his peace, and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him, and said unto him, Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?
62 And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.
63 Then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, What need we any further witnesses?
64 Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye? And they all condemned him to be guilty of death.
65 And some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to buffet him, and to say unto him, Prophesy: and the servants did strike him with the palms of their hands.
66 And as Peter was beneath in the palace, there cometh one of the maids of the high priest:
67 And when she saw Peter warming himself, she looked upon him, and said, And thou also wast with Jesus of Nazareth.
68 But he denied, saying, I know not, neither understand I what thou sayest. And he went out into the porch; and the cock crew.
69 And a maid saw him again, and began to say to them that stood by, This is one of them.
70 And he denied it again. And a little after, they that stood by said again to Peter, Surely thou art one of them: for thou art a Galilaean, and thy speech agreeth thereto.
71 But he began to curse and to swear, saying, I know not this man of whom ye speak.
72 And the second time the cock crew. And Peter called to mind the word that Jesus said unto him, Before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice. And when he thought thereon, he wept.
Look how Peter seems to be shrinking, becoming more wizened, pathetic and miserable as he denies Jesus.
And look at his hands, pointing inward to his heart. Do you feel that? That is exactly the thing that can’t be communicated in any intellectual words, but which is communicated so powerfully by this painting.