While most of his contemporaries were painting in Baroque style, which was highly ornate and extravagant, Caravaggio had begun to switch to “chiaroscuro,” a technique that depends on the dramatic use of light and dark. Caravaggio’s life was quite the story. He had many run-ins with the law and was arrested on several occasions. In 1606, a bet over a game of tennis led to an argument, at which point Caravaggio drew his sword and killed his opponent. He fled, taking the long way home to Rome. While “on the lam,” he produced several masterpieces but died before he reached Rome, probably of pneumonia, but some say lead poisoning (which would mean his art killed him due to the lead in the paint). Several days after his death, his crime was absolved by the Pope. This was his last painting. I’m glad he found the time to create such masterpieces while on the run.
Even if his character was suspect, it is obvious his talent was not. This painting captures so much emotion and drama with concise visual beauty. Jesus predicted Peter would deny him three times, and this is the moment when Peter does so. He, the woman, and the guard are standing in the courtyard outside where Jesus is being tried. Both fingers of the woman and one of the soldier are pointing at Peter. It is said that these three fingers represent Peter’s three-fold denial, whereas Peter has his fingers pointed inward as if to say, “Who? Me?”
The light on Peter’s face clearly shows that he is the main character in this scene. If you look closely, you see the tears beginning to form in his eyes. His forehead is wrinkled with concern. Even in the midst of his denial, his heart is breaking—a foreshadowing of the narrative that he “wept bitterly” after this encounter. The use of light reveals whereas the darkness is furtive and full of fear and suspicion.
How could someone so close to Jesus, as Peter was, deny that he even knew Jesus when Jesus was at his greatest hour of need? Yet Peter goes on to become the leader of the first Christian community—the “rock” on which the church was born. That this story is even told at all is a tribute to the candor of the early Christian writers. They didn’t make the people of the gospels heroic or superhuman. They told the stories of themselves as they were, warts and all. The disciples were just like us; messy, inadequate and sometimes shameful, yet always, always redeemable.
Being Human connection: Is there something in your past you wish wasn’t there? Regrets? Failures? Me too. But remember, God isn’t finished with us yet. We are works in progress.
Featured image: Caravaggio, “The Denial of Saint Peter,” 1610