The Penitent Saint Peter and more art by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri called Guercino

The Penitent Saint Peter, ca. 1624–25
103.5 x 82 cm (h x w)
Oil on canvas


Private collection, Paris;
Piero Corsini, New York, 1989;
Koelliker collection, Milan.


New York, Piero Corsini, Important Old Master Paintings, 3 November–1 December 1989
Iglesias, Palazzina Bellavista, Le collezioni ritrovate di Guercino, 30 April–30 August 2003
Milan, Palazzo Reale, Guercino. Poesia e sentimento nella pittura del ‘600, 26 September 2003–18 January 2004


Robert B. Simon and Frank Dabell, Important Old Master Paintings, exh. cat. Piero Corsini, New York, 1989, pp. 62–65, no. 11.
David M. Stone, Guercino. Catalogo completo dei dipinti, Florence, 1991, p. 121 no. 98.
Massimo Pulini, ed., Le collezioni ritrovate di Guercino, exh. cat., Palazzina Bellavista, Iglesias, 2003, p. 10.
Denis Mahon, ed., Guercino. Poesia e sentimento nella pittura del ‘600, exh. cat., Palazzo Reale, Milan, 2003, pp. 172–73, entry by Massimo Pulini.
Nicholas Turner, The Paintings of Guercino. A Revised and Expanded Catalogue Raisonné, Rome, 2017, p. 407, no. 134.

The Popes are seen by the Catholic Church as the successors of Peter, and the church of Saint Peter’s in Rome, the heart of the Catholic faith, is thought to be built over his tomb. Guercino’s painting depicts the repentant Saint Peter, distraught at having denied that he knew Christ when questioned on the eve of the Crucifixion, and having thus fulfilled Christ’s prophecy: “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times” (Luke 22:34; Matthew 26:34; Mark 14:30; John 13:38). The saint is dramatically isolated, set against a turbulent, stormy sky, and lit by an ethereal light that emphasizes his soulful expression and posture. He leans upon a stone parapet which might be understood as Christ’s tomb, which he and Saint John discover empty (John 20:6). Peter is represented holding the keys to heaven and hell, made of gold and iron, respectively, which were given to him by Christ. Representing the powers of absolution and excommunication, this device was also used by the popes. The canvas is a quintessential example of Guercino’s painterly virtuosity and of the poignant humanity of his figures.
The prevalence of the lachrymose Saint Peter in painting of the seventeenth century can be related to the concerns of the Counter-Reformation church. The biblical description of Saint Peter’s penitence in the days after the Crucifixion was used by Counter-Reformation churchmen such as Roberto Bellarmino to justify and reinforce the sacrament of Penance or Confession, which had been challenged by Protestantism, with Bellarmino contending that Peter’s tears were a form of confession. Bellarmino and other writers also espoused the spiritual benefit of tears. Meditation on repentance also thus became a common devotional practice at the time. Another Jesuit, the poet-martyr Robert Southwell, penned memorable lines in his “Saint Peter’s Complaint” of ca. 1595 which resonate with the sentiments of this painting:
My eyes read mournful lessons to my heart,
My heart doth to my thought the grief compound;
My thought the same doth to my tongue impart,
My tongue the message in the ears doth sound;
My ears back to my heart their sorrows send;
Thus circling griefs run round without an end.
More generally, the cult of Saint Peter was promoted by Counter-Reformation writers including Cesare Baronius as part of a broader campaign to emphasize the Petrine succession of the popes and the primacy of the Roman church.
From the late 1500s, a group of artists more or less simultaneously created images of the Penitent Saint Peter and the related scenes of The Denial of Saint Peter or Saint Peter in a Landscape. One might cite, for example, Agostino Carracci’s Saint Peter engraving of 1583, or Goltzius’s engraving of 1589, or Jan Sadeler’s engraving of around the same time. Given that all of these artists had spent time in Rome, one suspects that there must have been some as-yet-unidentified common Roman source for all of them. It is alternately possible that all the artists may have simply responded to contemporary devotional practice and literature and devised a new pictorial motif based on the commonplace examples of the Penitent Magdalene and the Penitent Saint Jerome. Whatever its origins, however, it is within these established devotional and visual traditions that the present painting can be situated.
When the then recently rediscovered painting was presented in an exhibition held by Piero Corsini in New York in 1989, Robert Simon proposed in an extensive catalogue entry that the work could be dated to ca. 1623–24. David Stone moved it to a year or so later, ca. 1624–25, a date also endorsed by Nicholas Turner. As the work is not recorded in the Libro dei conti, it likely relates to an undocumented private commission, or was made by the artist as a gift. The painting is typical of Guercino’s style following his sojourn in Rome in 1621–23, in which light and colour increasingly follow the forms they describe, instead of being blurred by ambient haze. The Apostle fits neatly within the half-length canvas, his backward-leaning head and body emphasising the diagonal axis. This is interrupted only by the keys dangling from his wrist, which define a clean vertical line taken up in the stone ledge on the opposite side of the picture. The saint’s huge, intensely interlocked hands are the work’s most especially memorable feature.

exhibited by:

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