Saint Peter: The Iconography
June 29
Saint Peter is almost always easily recognized. Since at least the 4th century he has been portrayed with a short, square beard (example), and since at least the early 6th in the West he has carried a set of keys as his attribute (example).

The keys refer to Jesus' statement to Peter in Matthew 16:19, "I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven." Roman Catholicism points to this passage as supporting papal supremacy. Some santos in Mexico emphasize the papal connection by also giving Peter a triple tiara (example). Molanus even advises that one key should be gold and the other silver, to symbolize the Pope's powers of absolution and excommunication respectively (301). This is the case in Veronese's Sacra Conversazione (1540-43), but in most images I have examined the keys are the same gray color.

In the art of the Orthodox churches, which do not recognize papal supremacy, the keys are much less common. In 12th-century Sicily, where many people were Orthodox, even some Catholic churches did without the keys, using instead a cross (example) or a book (example).

In early images Peter has a full head of hair, although in the 4th century St. Jerome alluded to an earlier assertion that he was bald.1 Medieval portraits often show him balding from the back of the head, sometimes with only a tuft of hair remaining at the forehead (example). Voragine explains that the pagans of Antioch cut off the top part of Peter's hair "to do him despite and shame," and that this insult is memorialized by the tonsure worn by the clergy.2 (Peter's 1708 statue in the Lateran, however, gives the saint a full head of hair again.)

Rarely, St. Peter's attribute may be a rooster or the double chains that had bound him when the angel released him from prison (Acts 12:6-7). Duchet-Suchaux (276) say a fish or fishing gear may also be used, but so far I have not seen an example of this.

In many images from the earliest years into modern times, Peter will be seen with Paul flanking the central figure – the Virgin, an enthroned Christ or cross representing Christ, a Crucifixion, etc. He engages in lively discussions with Paul in Saraceni's Paradise and with St. Mark in Veronese's Sacra Conversazione. In some medieval works he sits enthroned as Prince of the Apostles (example).

NARRATIVE IMAGES FROM SCRIPTURE

St. Peter is the Zelig of New Testament images, showing up in many episodes where scripture does not specifically note his presence. Thus we see him in a Calling of the Sons of Zebedee painting and even, anachronistically, in a Baptism of Jesus fresco. He also appears in a number of images of the raising of Lazarus. In one of them he is the one who unwraps Lazarus's grave cloths.

Of course innumerable images also portray the many episodes in which Peter's role is significant and noted in scripture. The Calling of Peter and Andrew is a favorite subject (example from the 6th century, another from the 14th). Another is his attempt to walk on water (example). At St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, a mosaic portrait gives him a scroll with the words TU ES CHRISTUS FILIUS DEI VIVI, referring to his declaration that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God."3 In the following chapter in Matthew and Mark he witnesses the Transfiguration. Quite a few images of the Last Supper focus on Peter's unwillingness for Jesus to wash his feet (examples: Kastav, Tintoretto, and a mosaic in St. Marks, Venice).

The Servant's Ear

All four gospels say that during the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane a disciple cuts off the ear of one of the servants of the high priest, but only John identifies the disciple as Peter and only in Luke does Jesus then touch the ear and heal the man.5 Most images present both Peter's assault on the hapless servant and Jesus' healing touch (example). One fresco in Croatia shows the ear actually in Jesus' hand. A particularly subtle example is a sculpture group from Amiens in which the touch is almost hidden amidst the violence of the arrest. Occasionally we see the episode without the healing touch (example). The assailant always has the short, square beard that identifies him as Peter.

The Rooster

In the Garden Jesus had told Peter that "this night before the cock crow thou wilt deny me thrice." Later in the evening servants accuse Peter of being a disciple of Jesus and he does deny it, three times just as Jesus said. Then a rooster crows.4 The 6th-century Passion mosaics in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo include both the prediction and the denial. The latter was famously painted by Caravaggio in the 17th century.

Many 4th-century sarcophagi feature a scene with Jesus, Peter, and a rooster. These could represent the prediction, but Sgarlata's notes on the Sarcophagus of Adelphia (127) suggest that the scene may represent the later episode in John 21:15-19 in which Jesus asks three times, "Simon son of John, lovest thou me more than these?" Peter answers yes each time, and for each answer Jesus says, "Feed my lambs" or "Feed my sheep." He then uses a mysterious metaphor to prophesy Peter's martyrdom and crucifixion:
Amen, amen I say to thee, when thou wast younger, thou didst gird thyself, and didst walk where thou wouldst. But when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and lead thee whither thou wouldst not. And this he said, signifying by what death he should glorify God.
Sgarlata suggests that the rooster may represent Peter's guilty conscience in Jesus' presence and that this is a scene in which Peter is being forgiven for what he did. Note that the forgiveness consists of Peter's being given a mission, to feed Christ's flock and to die like him on a cross.

Examination of the many sarcophagi with this scene tend to bear out Sgarlata's suggestion. First, the context on the sarcophagi is about healing (the blind man, the woman with the flow of blood, etc.), resurrection (Lazarus, the daughter of Jairus), and dying into life (Daniel, the three youths in the furnace). Second, almost all rooster scenes suggest healing by showing Jesus with the fingers of his right hand in the same blessing configuration he uses for curing the blind and others (example). Third, the scroll Jesus holds in most rooster scenes is also replicated from the scenes of healing and may additionally represent the Gospel that Jesus is commissioning Peter to carry to his "sheep," as in this example where he actually hands the scroll over to Peter.

One might object that a "feed my sheep" scene ought to have a sheep in it, not a rooster. But a sheep would deflect from the point that what Jesus offers here is forgiveness for sin (emblematized by the rooster), and that the Christian life of sacrifice is precisely what forgiveness imparts.

In their selection and arrangement of Peter scenes the sarcophagi make it clear that Jesus' prediction about Peter's salvific life and death did come true. The lower left register of an early example juxtaposes the prediction with Peter's arrest ("another shall lead thee") and the water miracle that enables him to baptize his jailers ("feed my sheep"). This arrangement is followed in a sarcophagus now in Arles and another in the Vatican. Of the many sarcophagi I have studied, I know of only one that includes the rooster scene without also including at least the water miracle.

After the 4th century, the "feed my sheep" episode will in fact feature literal sheep, and the emphasis will be on Peter's authority as head of the Church. In Raphael's painting he holds the symbolic keys at his chest. In another painting in St. Cecilia's, Rome, the saint points to the words pasce oves meas, "feed my sheep," in a book he is showing to St. Paul.

In the Acts of the Apostles

In the Acts of the Apostles, one of the most crucial episodes for Christian theology is Peter's vision at Joppa, when he is told that God has made all foods clean (image). Other episodes from Acts that are popular in the art are Peter's healing of Aeneas and resurrection of Tabitha and his escape from Herod's prison.

NARRATIVE IMAGES FROM LATER SOURCES

The Golden Legend's entry for St. Peter's Chair describes the saint's first mission, to Antioch, where he converted more than ten thousand people and resurrected the son of the provost (image).

Tradition holds that his next mission was to Rome. In I Peter 5:13 the author says he is in "Babylon," the name early Christians used to refer to Rome, and numerous early writers tell of his mission there.6

There was an early legend that when St. Peter was imprisoned in Rome he made water gush from the rock wall of his cell. This became a frequent subject in paleo-Christian sarcophagus reliefs (example). The event is referred to in the 3rd-century Martyrdom of the Blessed Apostle Peter and told in greater detail in the Martyrium of Saints Processus and Martinianus, a much later document but which J.-B. Sollerius judged to be based on "the most ancient manuscripts."7 In the latter text the jailers Processus and Martinianus serve in the Mamertine Prison on the Capitoline Hill, where Peter and Paul are being held. They are in awe of the cures the saints perform for Christians who come for help, so they ask to be baptized themselves. Peter then makes the sign of the cross on the rock wall of his cell, and water for the baptism gushes forth. Fellow prisoners are so amazed that 47 of them also ask for baptism. Today a spring in Rome beneath the church of San Pietro in Carcere is claimed to be the very one that Peter educed from the rock.

The Martyrium also conflates the story of the two martyrs with the 2nd-century quo vadis story in the Acts of Peter that was featured in a novel popular in the mid-20th century and a film of the same name. After their baptism Processus and Martinianus release Peter from prison and he sets out to leave Rome immediately. But when he arrives at the Appian gate he sees Jesus approaching and asks him where is going. Jesus, who had ascended to Heaven years before, answers "to Rome, to be crucified again, as you should too." Peter therefore turns back and is recaptured by Roman soldiers.8

In subsequent centuries the water miracle narrative was neglected in favor of the story of Peter's difficulties in Rome with Simon Magus. The latter is at least as old as the 2nd-century Acts of Peter. As retold in the Golden Legend (#89), Simon was claiming to be God, but Peter exposed him before the Emperor Nero (image). Embarrassed, Simon later said he would prove his divinity by flying through the sky, which he did with the help of invisible demons. But then Peter commanded the demons to let go of Simon, and the magician fell to his death (image). At this Nero ordered Peter's crucifixion.

Saying he was unworthy to die like his Lord, Peter asked to be crucified upside-down. All images of his death have the cross inverted (example). Medieval and Renaissance images usually show the saint tied to his cross by ropes, but in 1570 Molanus (303-306) cited numerous patristic authorities to argue that he was affixed by nails. After Molanus, nails did appear in some images of Peter's crucifixion (example), but by no means all.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-11, 2016-10-04.

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Saint Peter (See description page)


A grand cycle of mosaics in the Palatine Chapel, Palermo, traces events in Peter's life from his cure of the man lame from birth to the fall of Simon Magus. Shown here: Peter debates Simon before the Emperor Nero.


This mosaic in St. Mark's, Venice, includes Simon's fall, Nero's command, and the executions of both St. Peter and St. Paul. (See description page)

MORE IMAGES

DATES

  • June 29: The Crucifixion of St. Peter, the saint's main feast day
  • St. Peter's Chair: February 22
  • The Dedication of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul: November 18
  • St. Peter in Chains: August 1 (suppressed in 1962)

NAMES

  • Peter's original name was Simon bar Jonah ("Simon son of Jonah"), but in John 1:42 Jesus gives him the name Cephas, a Greek approximation of Aramaic Keppa, "Rock." The Greek for "Rock" is Petros, from which comes English "Peter," French Pierre, etc.

HAGIOGRAPHY

ALSO SEE

NOTES

1 Commentarium in Epistolam Beati Pauli ad Galatas, Migne 26, col. 329. Jerome and Molanus (301) both cite Clement of Rome as the source of the assertion that Peter was bald. However, my search of the Clementine literature (all of it apocryphal) did not yield anything about the saint's hair.

2 Ryan I, 165. Caxton, ¶ "St. Peter's Tonsure" in "Of the Chairing of St. Peter the Apostle."

3 Matthew 16:16, c.f. Mark 8:29, John 6:70.

4 Matthew 26:34-35 and 69-75, Mark 14:30-31 and 66-72. In Luke (22:31-34 and 54-61) the prediction takes place before Jesus and the Apostles go to Gethsemane.

5 Matthew 26:51-52, Mark 15:47, Luke 22:49-52, John 18:10-11. John identifies the servant as "Malchus."

6 Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles."

7 Acta Sanctorum, July vol. 1, 303-304.

8 Acta Sanctorum, July vol. 1, 304. Acts of Peter, XXXV. The novel is Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis? The film of the same title was released in 1951 by MGM.