THE ‘KEY’ MOMENT: ‘The delivery of the keys to St. Peter’ by Pietro Perugino
Officially he is a painter, but concealed under his artistic guise is a character, a charisma and a creative burst of imagination. Pietro Perugino (1452 – 1523) is regarded as one of the greatest champions of the renewal of Italian art.
Born Pietro Vannucci, his nickname characterizes him as from Perugia, the chief city of Umbria. His fervour imbued the High Renaissance with the spirit of classical expressions. In recognition Pope Sixtus IV called him to decorate the Sistine Chapel. So esteemed was his skill that even the end wall (which today houses the ‘Last Judgement’ by Michelangelo) was painted by him. Among his various masterpieces, one of the best known works is undoubtedly, ‘The delivery of the keys to St. Peter.’
The subject matter of the narrative is taken from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, verse 13 to 20. The painting captures the moment when Christ gives the keys of the kingdom of heaven to St. Peter who accepts it in humble adoration. The scene is not set in isolation. The apostles and the contemporary onlookers are neatly divided into two groups. They stand in contrapposto on either side of the protagonist.
While John on the right is recognized by his youthful features, Judas on the left is featured with his famous purse. Interestingly, as was the trend, Perugino depicts himself among the onlookers. He stands fifth from the right, his gaze regarding the viewer.
The figure next to him is perhaps the patron of the artwork himself, Pope Sixtus IV. He is recognized by his ostentatious wear, his red camauro and his pontifical sandals. Right next to him are poised two contemporary men. While one holds a compass, the other clutches onto a builders square. They represent the wave of revival surging the Renaissance.
The narrative is set against the backdrop of a flat, spacious piazza fringed by three exquisitely carved medieval structures. Prominent in the center is the octagonal Temple of Solomon. To the right and left, are two identical triumphal arches. These represent the Arch of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who legalized Christianity by the Edict of Milan (313 AD). Thus it reinstates the political and religious foundation of the Catholic Church.
Employing the technique of linear and aerial perspective, Perugino creates an illusion of a three-dimensional depth in a two-dimensional picture. Through the medium of linear perspective we can see how the lines on the floor are strategically used to create an image of receding space. Notice how the figures diminish in size as they withdraw from the focal scene. Displaying the effect of the atmosphere on the objects, Perugino paints the hills in a bluish pearly grey haze. It augments our sense of reality.
The figurines on the intermediate level recount two secondary scenes from the life of Christ. This includes his stoning on the right (John 8:59) and the tribute money on the left (Matthew 17: 24 – 27). Gestural movements are also depicted among the people in the Piazza, creating a sense of livelihood that resembles the natural world.
Unpretentiously, the painting had to be featured in the Sistine Chapel which also serves as the site for the Papal Conclave. An interesting banter among papal artistic circles is that the painting served as a ‘good omen’ for at least three cardinals who were seated beneath it. They went on to become Pope Clement VII, Pope Julius II and Pope Paul III.
One of the ‘key’ artists of all times, Perugino’s painting captures the ‘key moment.’ Impetuous Peter confesses with conviction that Christ is indeed the Messiah. Jesus affirms it by praising Peter’s insight and by bestowing upon him ‘the keys of the kingdom.’ Till date, these keys are not only regarded as attributes to identify the first Pope but they also serve as the Papal insignia. Thus the painting professes the legitimacy of the Petrine primacy and the credibility of the Catholic creed.
Asst. Director Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
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