The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Michelangelo)
|Dimensions||625 cm × 662 cm (246 in × 261 in)|
|Location||Cappella Paolina, Vatican Palace, Vatican City|
The Crucifixion of St. Peter is a fresco painting by the Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo Buonarroti (c. 1546–1550). It is housed in the Cappella Paolina, Vatican Palace, in the Vatican City, Rome. It is the last fresco executed by Michelangelo.
The artist portrayed St. Peter in the moment in which he was raised by the Roman soldiers to the cross. Michelangelo concentrated the attention on the depiction of pain and suffering. The faces of the people present are clearly distressed. Pope Paul commissioned this fresco by Michelangelo in 1541 and unveiled it in his Cappella Paolina.
Restoration of the fresco completed in 2009 revealed an image believed to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo himself. The figure is standing in the upper left corner of the fresco, wearing a red tunic and a blue turban. Blue turbans were often worn by Renaissance sculptors to keep the dust out of their hair.
St. Peter is known by many names. He is known as the “rock of the church,” the “first vicar of Christ,” or the first Pope. This important distinction has made him the subject of many works of art, especially those in the Vatican. It is he who is depicted on the wall of the Sistine chapel receiving the keys to the kingdom of Heaven from Christ in Perugino’s The Delivery of the Keys. Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to paint yet another fresco of St. Peter around the year 1545. In sharp contrast to images like that of Perugino, he elected to paint a much darker moment in the saint’s life. St. Peter’s status as a popular martyr is not only because he was the “first vicar of Christ,” but also because he was condemned to die by way of crucifixion. Although his final request is not mentioned in the Bible verbatim, it is popularly believed (due to the Apocryphal text known as the Acts of Peter) that he stated, “Crucify me head downwards, for I am not worthy to die as my master died.” The Crucifixion of St. Peter is situated on the eastern wall of the Pauline Chapel, which is significant because that is the location in which the cardinals have always held their elections for a new pope.
Formal Analysis and Compositional Elements
The image is set within the context of a modestly executed mountainous background. Michelangelo did not expend much effort in rendering the background in great detail. Vasari states, “There are no landscapes to be seen in these scenes, nor any trees, buildings or other embellishments and variation.” The mountains are painted in a faint blue hue, which perhaps is intended to increase the depth of field through atmospheric perspective. The land represented in the middle ground and foreground is a pale yellow-green that is in some places more of a yellow ochre in color. The only real vertical elements in the painting are the figures, which occupy most of the foreground. Many clusters of people surround a single large central figure that is mounted on a crucifix. The most impressive formal attribute of this painting (besides its considerable size) is its central compositional element. Unlike the many representations of the martyrdom of Peter that came before it, this particular manifestation depicts the raising of the cross- the moment before the crucifixion has truly begun. The angle of the crucifix activates the composition and makes what might otherwise be a static image into something much more dynamic. The strong diagonal creates a cyclical visual pattern for the eyes to follow. If one reads the painting from left to right, the figures ascending the steps on the bottom left lead the eye upward towards a cluster of equestrian figures. They direct the eye to the group of people located on the top right corner, which in turn lead to one end of the crucifix. The other end of the crucifix points again to the men who are climbing up the steps. Michelangelo also created many strong diagonals with the placement of his figures and the extension of their arms and legs towards a central point of convergence. The positioning of St. Peter himself is often noted as the most interesting innovation Michelangelo implemented in this piece. He defied convention by positioning Peter’s upper body so that it cranes upward and twists his neck around so that his eyes make contact with the viewer. The saint’s penetrating stare gives the impression that he is demanding that the audience bear witness; that they do not avert their eyes, that his sacrifice would not be in vain. This is a far cry from the typical passive, uplifted gaze that is seen on the face of countless martyrs in the depiction of their final moments.
These frescoes were criticized in a derisive manner from the very moment of their unveiling. Most of the criticism comes from what many believed was a blatant disregard for proportion. At first people attributed the failure of these frescoes to the artist’s advancing age and declining health. Later, some scholars attributed the disproportionate nature of the figures to an active pursuit of mannerist technique on the part of Michelangelo. Steinberg refutes these claims by positing the fact that the characteristic stocky, muscular figures in this piece do not coincide with the lithe ideal body type preferred by mannerists. Yael Even states that Michelangelo even went so far as to imbue the mourning female figures present in the painting with a more masculine quality.
These frescoes were largely ignored for centuries and incurred a great deal of damage due to neglect. In the early twentieth century there were some scholars who came to reconsider the frescoes under the new light of expressionism and abstraction. The frescoes were restored in 1934 as a result of this newfound interest and the subsequent appreciation the paintings garnered. It was not until fairly recently (in the late 1980s) that a scholar by the name of William Wallace proposed an entirely new perspective on the subject. Wallace claims that the disproportionate quality of the figures is not a failing on the part of Michelangelo, but rather another instance of his genius. It is not even an instance of something new. In this particular case, Michelangelo used proportion in order to compensate for certain discrepancies caused by different perspectives. He designed the frescoes in accordance to what the viewer on the ground would see rather than the “ideal” frontal view most people see in photographs or reproductions. This proclivity for manipulating proportions for the sake of perspective or aggrandizing effects is something Michelangelo is known for. He has notably employed these methods with the Moses (Michelangelo) statue he carved for the tomb of Pope Julius II.
Time and Space
According to Wallace, the real innovation in this piece comes from the incorporation of time and space in the overall composition of the frescos. He postulates that Michelangelo designed the composition for these frescoes with the notion that they would be viewed as one walks down the center aisle of the narrow chapel in a processional manner. The appearance of both frescoes changes significantly as one walks from one end of the chapel to the other. The most popular point of contention in the case of The Crucifixion of St. Peter is the inordinately large representation of Peter himself. While Peter is in fact grossly disproportionate from the “ideal” frontal view, he is perfectly proportionate (and more important, always visible) from every other vantage point. Michelangelo actually used perspective to make the image something one can experience over time, giving it a somewhat “cinematic quality.”
Architectural and Environmental Context
Wallace states that in addition to conceiving of these frescoes in terms of perspective, Michelangelo also took into consideration the architectural and environmental context they were to be set in. The Conversion of St. Saul (or St. Paul) is often discussed in conjunction with The Crucifixion of St. Peter. In large part this is because the two frescoes were commissioned together, but this can also be attributed to how the two images were created as foils of one another. The Conversion of St. Paul (as its title suggests) represents the conversion of a lawyer from Tarsus named Saul (a man who prosecuted Christians) into a follower of Christ. In the book of Acts Paul states that he saw an impossibly bright light and heard the voice of Christ himself. The blindingly bright light is the Apex of this story; it is because of this that Michelangelo chose to situate this painting on the Western wall with the eastern exposure – so that the lunette situated above The Crucifixion of St. Peter would provide a bright light to illuminate it throughout the day. Conversely, with The Crucifixion of St. Peter being a much darker story, it is situated on the eastern wall that faces west. Due to the obstruction caused by an adjacent building, this fresco is only lit for a very limited period of time at the very end of the day. Some speculate that this is part of the reason why it has been overlooked for so long. Wallace proposes that Michelangelo intended for this contrasting darkness to highlight the severity of the subject matter.
Ultimately, despite the efforts of contemporary scholars to illustrate the genius behind these works, they remain relatively obscure. This is due primarily to the fact that tourists are not permitted to enter the Pauline chapel because it is a sacred space. Most of those who do know of these works will never have the opportunity to see them in person. According to Williams no other work by Michelangelo has ever been so grossly misrepresented in reproductions. The only way to view these works as the artist intended them to be seen is to see them in situ.
- 'Michelangelo self-portrait' discovered in restored Vatican fresco, The Times, 2 July 2009.
- Howard Hibbard,Michelangelo (Cambridge,Mass: Harper & Row, 1985),276.
- Leo Steinberg,Michelangelo's Last Paintings: The Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter in the Capellina Paolina, Vatican palace. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975),47.
- Margaret Kuntz,"Designed for Ceremony: The Capella Paolina at the Vatican Palace." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. 02 (June 2003):242.
- Giorgio Vasari.The Lives of the Artists Translated by Georgé Bull (Condor 1965),384.
- Steinberg,Michelangelo's Last Paintings,47.
- Steinberg,Michelangelo's Last Paintings, 17.
- Steinberg,Michelangelo's Last Paintings, 18.
- Yael Even,"The Heroine as Hero in Michelangelo's Art."Woman's Art Journal. 01 (1990):29.
- Steinberg,Michelangelo's Last Paintings,18.
- William E. Wallace."Narrative and Religious Expression in Michelangelo's Pauline Chapel."Arbitus et Historiae. 19 (1989):114-115.
- Erwin Panofsky, "The Firist Two Projects of Michelangelo's Tomb of Julius II." The Art Bulletin.04 (1937):577.
- Wallace,"Narrative and Religious,"117.
- Wallace,"Narrative and Religious,"111.
- Hibbard,Michelangelo, 275.
- Wallace,"Narrative and Religious,"111.
- Wallace,"Narrative and Religious,"119.
- "Narrative and Religious Expression in Michelangelo's Pauline Chapel"
- "Designed for Ceremony: The Capella Paolina at the Vatican Palace"
- "The Heroine as Hero in Michelangelo's Art"
- "The First Two Projects of Michelangelo's Tomb of Julius II"
- Virtual Tour of the Pauline Chapel
- "Designed for Ceremony: The Cappella Paolina at the Vatican Palace"