Saint Peter Martyr: The Iconography

St. Peter Martyr, of the Order of Preachers. On April 6 he suffered martyrdom for the catholic faith. – Roman Martyrology for April 29

In portraits this saint can be recognized by his Dominican habit and a sword or bloody gash in his skull. This refers to the manner of his assassination in 1252. In Caxton's translation of the Golden Legend, "a man of the heretics, which was hired thereto, ran upon him and smote him with his falchion on the head."

The ultimate source of the "falchion" detail is not the Legend but the inquest that followed Peter's death. It said the gash was caused by "the force of the impact of a falchion, whose blade ends in two horns, like the moon."1 We see just such a weapon in the second picture at right.

The description in the inquest led some artists to picture something more like a bill-hook, as in the third picture, and by the time statues of the saint got to Mexico it had become more like a broad-axe, as in the fourth.

The "heretics" in question were Cathars, a sect that was then gaining strength in northern Italy and against whom Peter had been preaching. The Legend and the decree of canonization speak as if only one of the Cathars did the deed, but the inquest names two.2 It also speaks of a second blow to the saint, a dagger thrust into his shoulder, and of a second victim, a friar named Dominic. The second blow and the second friar are included in Bellini's painting, which also adds a third assailant. Some images are like Bellini's in picturing the assailants as soldiers; others make them desperadoes in tattered clothing.

Other narrative images portray the miracles performed through the saint's prayers during and after his lifetime. (Vivarini painting, four panels by Pietro di Sano) .

Most images of St. Peter Martyr make him a man in middle age, but in a few he is quite young (example) and some others give him a gray beard. He is often seen grouped with other Dominicans in the Order's churches (example).

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-01-16, 30.

HOME PAGE


Often Peter is iden­ti­fied by a gash in the head, as in this de­tail from a Fra An­ge­li­co Na­ti­vi­ty. (See the de­scrip­tion page.)


A portrait with the "falchion" described in the inquest (See the description page)


A knight using a bill-hook to kill the saint (See the description page)


In Mexico the sword often be­comes a broad-axe like this one in the Church of SS. Peter and Paul, Etla, Mex­ico. (See the de­scrip­tion page.)

MORE IMAGES

  • 1270-80: In this manuscript illumination, the sword has three points, as if a combination of a falchion and a bill-hook.
  • 15th century: A della Robbia Lunette with the Madonna and other Dominican saints.

DATES

  • Feast day: April 29
  • Born 1205 in Verona
  • Died 1252, entombed in Milan
  • Canonized one year later, in 1253

NAMES

  • Also known as Peter of Verona, less often as Peter of Milan

HAGIOGRAPHY

  • Golden Legend #63: html or pdf
  • Acta Sanctorum, April vol. 3, 678-719. Thomas of Lentino's Vita is on pages 686-719, Innocent IV's decree of canonization on pages 700-702, excerpts from the inquest on pages 680-82.

NOTES

1 Acta Sanctorum, April vol. 3, 681.

2 Acta Sanctorum, April vol. 3, 701 (for the decree of canonization) and 681 (for the inquest).