Crucifixion of Saint Peter (Caravaggio)

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Crucifixion of Saint Peter
Italian: Crocifissione di San Pietro
Martirio di San Pietro September 2015-1a.jpg
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions230 cm × 175 cm (91 in × 69 in)
LocationSanta Maria del Popolo, Rome

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (Italian: Crocifissione di san Pietro) is a work by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, painted in 1601 for the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Across the chapel is a second Caravaggio work depicting the Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus (1601). On the altar between the two is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Annibale Carracci.


The two lateral paintings were commissioned in September 1600 by Monsignor Tiberio Cerasi, Treasurer-General to Pope Clement VIII who purchased the chapel from the Augustinian friars on 8 July 1600 and entrusted Carlo Maderno to rebuild the small edifice in Baroque style.[1] The contract for the altarpiece with Carracci has not been preserved but it is generally assumed that the document had been signed somewhat earlier, and Caravaggio had to take into consideration the other artist's work and the overall iconographic programme of the chapel.[2]

Although much is said about the supposed rivalry between the painters, there is no historical evidence about any serious tensions. At the time both were successful and sought-after artists in Rome. Caravaggio gained the Cerasi commission right after his celebrated work in the Contarelli Chapel was finished. In these circumstances there was little reason for them to regard each other as business rivals, states Denis Mahon.[3]

The contract signed on 24 September 1600 stipulates that "the distinguished painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio" will paint two cypress panels, ten palms high and eight palms wide, representing the conversion of Saint Paul and the martyrdom of Saint Peter in eight months time for the price of 400 scudi. Caravaggio received 50 scudi as advance payment from the banker Vincenzo Giustiniani with the rest earmarked to be paid on completion. The dimensions specified for the panels are virtually the same as the size of the existing canvasses.[4]

Giovanni Baglione in his biography about Caravaggio reports that the first versions of both paintings were rejected:

"The panels at first had been painted in a different style, but because they did not please the patron, Cardinal Sannesio took them; in their place he painted the two oil paintings that can be seen there today, since he did not use any other medium."[5]

Several modern scholars including John Gash, Helen Lagdon and Peter Robb, have speculated that Sennassio may have taken advantage of Cerasi's sudden death to seize some pictures by Rome's most famous new painter. The first Conversion of Paul has been identified with The Conversion of Saint Paul (1600) in the Odescalchi Balbi Collection, Rome, but the first version of the Crucifixion of Peter has disappeared; some scholars have identified it with a painting now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, but this is not generally accepted (in the Hermitage catalog Martyrdom of St. Peter is attributed, with a question mark, to Lionello Spada and dated on the first quarter of the 17th century). In all events, the second versions, which seem to have been more unconventional than the first, were accepted without comment by the executors of Cerasi's estate in 1601.


The painting depicts the martyrdom of St. Peter. According to tradition Peter requested to be crucified upside-down because he does not believe that a man is worthy to be killed in the same manner as Jesus Christ. The large canvas shows the Romans, their faces shielded, struggling to erect the cross of the elderly but muscular apostle. Peter is heavier than his aged body would suggest, and his lifting requires the efforts of three men, as if the crime they perpetrate already weighs on them.

The two saints, Peter and Paul, together represent the foundations of the Catholic Church, Peter the rock upon which Christ declared his Church to be built (Gospel of Matthew 16:18), and Paul who founded the seat of the church in Rome. Caravaggio's paintings were thus intended to symbolise Rome's (and Cerasi's) devotion to the Princes of the Apostles in this church which dominated the great piazza welcoming pilgrims as they entered the city from the north, representing the great Counter-Reformation themes of conversion and martyrdom and serving as propaganda against the twin threats of backsliding and Protestantism.

Caravaggio, or his patron, appear to have had in mind the Michelangelo frescoes in the Vatican's Capella Paolina (1546–1550) when choosing the subjects for these paintings. However, the Caravaggio scene is far more stark than the confusing melee miracle of the mannerist Michelangelo fresco in the Vatican.[6]


  1. ^ Hibbard, Howard (1983). Caravaggio. Westview Press. p. 119. ISBN 0-06-430128-1.
  2. ^ Denis Mahon: Egregius in Urbe Pictor: Caravaggio revised, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 93, No. 580 (Jul., 1951), p. 226
  3. ^ Denis Mahon op. cit. p. 230
  4. ^ Denis Mahon op. cit., pp. 226-227
  5. ^ Giovanni Baglione: The Life of Michelagnolo da Caravaggio, in Giulio Mancini, Giovanni Baglione, Giovanni Pietro Bellori: Lives of Caravaggio, Pallas Athene, 2005
  6. ^ "Web Gallery of Art, searchable fine arts image database".


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