Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, “The Denial of Saint Peter,” 1610
One poignant and tragic moment during the arrest of Jesus is Peter’s denial, a moment that is both heartbreaking and familiar.
Caravaggio’s The Denial of Saint Peter invites us into this moment with psychological intensity. We meet three characters standing together in the dark of night: a military guard, a maidservant, and Saint Peter himself. The background suggests in a subtle way the fire and the courtyard that is the setting of the scene, but the focus is on the interaction of the characters. The visual narrative moves from left to right. The guard turns toward the maidservant, while she regards him with intensity. Her starkly-lit face symbolizes the harsh and condemning truth she is sharing about Peter’s denial. The guard’s face is in darkness, showing that he does not yet fully understand, but he is leaning in to hear and eyeing Peter carefully. His raised hand with an extended finger shows his understanding dawning. The maid’s hands right behind his are more clearly accusatory, pointing right at Peter.
Peter is at the right side of the scene, cast in a softer light. His hands point to his own chest, offering a self-condemning conclusion to the movement of hands in the scene. Though he did deny the Lord three times, it was his fear speaking, not his understanding. After the cock crowed, he realized the truth of what had happened. Jesus had foretold the scene, not condemning but plainly stating Peter’s need for healing, forgiveness, and faith. This truth casts Peter in the soft light of compassion, and he is able to turn his hands inward as if to accept the need for healing and forgiveness.
While we see this movement toward healing in the soft light, Caravaggio’s depiction of Peter also emphasizes the complexity of betrayal. The face of Peter is similar to one Caravaggio used for executioners in other paintings. In this context we truly see Peter’s heartbreaking guilt, which will lead him to weep bitterly. Peter did contribute to the suffering brought on the Lord, sharing in the role of executioner, not physically but by his abandonment and denial.
The story of the Passion is full of moments of violence, tragedy, heartache, and pain. We see ourselves in these moments and feel the heartache for the ways we have contributed to the suffering. May we stand with Peter around the fire in the soft light of healing truth.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, director of ministerial formation at Saint John's University School of Theology and Seminary.
In the Year in Our Church section of Finding God, Grade 7, young people learn about and reflect on Holy Week and the events that led to Jesus’ Death on the Cross for our sins. Have young people illustrate the story of Peter denying his friendship with Jesus. Encourage young people to include themselves as part of the crowd in the scene. Invite young people to render the scene in a surprising or creative way. For example, they might set the scene in a contemporary context or develop a slide-show presentation with reflective music.
While young people are working, say: Think about the position Peter is in. His friend has been arrested and faces harsh punishment. People start pointing fingers because they are scared, and Peter, who is only human like the rest of us, doesn’t know what to do. He panics and claims not to know Jesus. He betrays his friend. Imagine if you were in the same situation. It’s not always easy to go against the crowd and to stand by what you know is right and good, and Peter realizes this when it is too late. Think of Peter when you find yourself in a similar situation.
Close the activity by encouraging young people to reflect privately on their personal choices.