Baroque beginnings and Renaissance ideals
The Carracci—Annibale, his brother Agostino, and their cousin Ludovico—are often credited with initiating the first phase of Baroque art. In reaction to the artificiality of Mannerism, the style that dominated central Italian art during the mid-sixteenth century, the Carracci advocated a return to greater naturalism. They founded a painting academy (Accademia degli Incamminati) in Bologna, Italy around 1580 that focused both on the study of the best artistic models of the Renaissance and on the direct study of nature.
Domine, Quo Vadis? (Lord, where are you going?)
Drama and gesture
In Christ Appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way, the two principle figures are set against the muted earth tones of the landscape, dotted with delicate trees and Roman architecture. Initially Peter stood more erect and closer to Jesus, but Annibale modified his pose in order to more dramatically express his emotional reaction. Jesus appears in his resurrected body; it is muscular but bears the wounds of the crucifixion. He wears a white loin cloth and a red mantle over his shoulder (red symbolizes his humanity and the blood shed at his Passion). Other references to the passion are the crown of thorns on his head and the cross that he carries over his left shoulder. Peter is identified by his traditional blue and yellow robes, gray hair and beard, and the keys that hang at his waist (see below on why keys are Peter’s attribute). He is taken aback by the muscular figure of Jesus. Peter’s hands are up in a protective mode as he recoils in astonishment.
While the Carracci advocated a return to Renaissance ideals of clarity and the direct study of nature (which they felt the Mannerist artists had rejected), this work is distinguished from the Renaissance in its psychological involvement of the viewer. Although Jesus turns his head to address Peter, he steps boldly forward toward the viewer as he points to his destination, which lies implicitly in front of the picture. Even the placement of the cross is expressive; one arm of the cross pierces the clear blue sky while the lower part projects out to the viewer. In these ways Annibale places the viewer directly in Jesus’s path and breaks the boundary between the painting and viewer’s space—engaging the viewer with an immediacy typical of Baroque art.
Peter and the papacy
This depiction of Jesus and St. Peter would call to mind for contemporary viewers Jesus’s earlier conversations with Peter, in particular, the Gospel of John, 13:36-37, where Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, where art thou going?” and Jesus replies, “I am going where thou canst not follow me now, but shalt follow me afterwards.” Then Peter said to him, “Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I am ready to lay down my life for thy sake.”
thou art Peter, and it is upon this rock that I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it; and I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Annibale’s painting can be interpreted as a commentary on the authority of the papacy and the centrality of Rome as the headquarters of the Catholic Church. Many early Christians were martyred in Rome and St. Peter’s basilica was itself built over a crypt believed to contain the tomb of St. Peter.