Art Guide - November 2018

Columban - Calendar Art Guide - November 2018  

Giving of the Keys to St. Peter, from the Sistine Chapel (fresco, 1481) by Perugino, Pietro (c.1445-1523)

When the Umbrian-born artist Perugino received the commission for this fresco of the Giving of the Keys to St Peter, he joined a number of other Italian artists in a prestigious project. The chapel now known as the Sistine Chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV. In 1477 the pope ordered the building and decoration of the chapel within the complex of buildings known as the Vatican Palace. The story recounted in St. Matthew’s Gospel symbolised above all the authority and prestige of the seat of St Peter, Bishop of Rome and first pope. Perugino invests the episode with a sober dignity and grandeur. According to ancient tradition the keys symbolised the power given to St. Peter to forgive sins. The influence of classically-inspired artistic ideals of clarity and symmetry find a near perfect formulation in Perugino’s composition. In the background, buildings inspired by antiquity establish a visual sense of grandeur and symmetry. Similarly, the orderly arrangement of Christ and the apostles across the foreground of the picture plane enhances a mood of measured calm. Christ and St Peter literally take centre stage in their meeting. Christ stands apart from the other figures. His separation from the apostles reminds the viewer of Christ’s divine authority. St Peter responds to Christ’s commission by falling to his knees – the familiar pose associated with humility. Equally revealing is the gesture the saint makes as he brings his hand to his chest. The action recalls the saint’s claims of his unworthiness for such a mission. Indeed, by focussing the viewer’s gaze on the key falling between the two protagonists, Perugino reminds the viewer of the awesome responsibility such a commission demands.

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