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, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.