St. Peter—keeper of the keys
Pietro Perugino’s Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter is an exemplar of Italian Renaissance painting. The work was part of a large decorative program commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV in 1481 for the walls of the Sistine Chapel (the name “Sistine” being derived from Sixtus’ own name), which was then, as it is today, the pope’s private chapel in the Vatican, in Rome. This large scale fresco, measuring 10’10” x 18’, is part of the New Testament narrative cycle depicting events from the life of Christ on the north wall of the chapel (the south wall illustrates the Old Testament life of Moses).
The painting shows the moment when Christ, standing in the center dressed purple and blue garments, gives the keys of the heavenly kingdom to the kneeling St. Peter. This episode comes from the Gospel of Matthew (16:18-19) as Christ said to Peter: “And I tell you that you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church… I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven….” The pair of gold and silver keys became Saint Peter’s attribute (an attribute, in this sense, is an object associated with a saint that aids the viewer in identifying the saint). More about Peter
The Renaissance ideal
Perugino pulled out every pictorial device in his painter’s arsenal to construct an image that is reflective of Renaissance ideals: figures, balance, harmony, and three-dimensional space. To begin with, see that the pictorial field has been clearly delineated into three distinct planes: foreground, middle-ground and background. In the foreground, on either side of Christ and St. Peter—are the other eleven Apostles. Who are the Apostles?
You can identify them easily since they are the figures dressed in classicizing tunics and robes. Each has been carefully rendered as a distinct individual. Perugino harmonizes the figures through repeating colors and postures. Notice how blue, yellow, and green are repeated throughout the group in a way that draws the viewer’s eye back and forth across the foreground.
Let’s also look at the postures of our Apostles. At the left and right edge of the Apostolic group is a figure with his back to the viewer, looking toward the central action. This effectively draws our eye to the center as well. The next figure over on both sides, faces out towards us, and their poses are mirror reflections of one another. Perugino’s harmoniously balanced grouping of historical figures provides visual interest for the viewer.
However, there is one element that is incongruous with the rest, which is the addition of contemporary Roman and Florentine men at the far edges of the groups on either side of Peter and Christ. These figures are clearly not part of the biblical figures based on their dress— and there is even a portrait of the artist himself, who looks directly out to the viewer on the right hand side (the fifth figure from the right edge—see the image above) ! The inclusion of the artist and / or contemporary people associated with the project was common during the Italian Renaissance, and in this case, Perugino’s presence acts as his visual signature to his work.
In the middle-ground, the figures are much smaller than those in the foreground, suggestive of their spatial distance. Not merely passersby, these figures are part of two additional stories from the life of Christ. On the left is the Tribute Money from the Gospel of Matthew (17:24-27) where the Roman tax collector demands Christ pay the Emperor’s tax. (This scene was famously represented by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence). On the right is the Stoning of Christ from the Gospel of John (8:48-59). The addition of these two scenes creates a pictorial device known as a continuous narrative, where two or more related events are shown occurring simultaneously in one composition.
The background is comprised of three architectural structures at the edge of the open piazza (plaza), with an ideal landscape extending far into the distance behind. In order to create such a believable sense of three-dimensional space, Perugino utilized two types of perspective.
The vanishing point is located along a horizontal line, the “horizon line,” which establishes the boundary between land and sky (the blue line in the diagram above). Notice how all of the figures maintain a proportional relationship to each other as they recede into this space.
The second type of perspective Perugino used is atmospheric perspective, which is literally the effect of the atmosphere on objects observed in the distance, causing them to diminish in appearance through a bluish-gray haze, as seen in the mountains in this case.
The influence of classical antiquity
One of the defining characteristics of the Italian Renaissance was the interest in all aspects of classical antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome), especially its art and architecture. That interest in manifested in Perugino’s fresco in two different ways. One is his use of contrapposto (Italian meaning “counter-pose”) for some of the foreground figures.
This pose (seen in the figure above) was known in the Renaissance through copies of the ancient Greek sculpture, the Doryphoros (above right). When standing in contrapposto, one leg bears all of the person’s weight while remains relaxed at the knee, producing a very natural stance (notice how often you stand in contrapposto every day!).
The second nod to antiquity is in the architecture. The central “temple” in the background of Perugino’s fresco is based on the Florence Baptistery, which was believed at the time to have been an ancient Roman temple.
And at either side of the piazza are representations of the Arch of Constantine (in Rome). The arch commemorates Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who legalized Christianity in 314. Famously converting to Christianity on his deathbed in 336, he effectively became the first Christian Roman emperor. Moreover, Constantine founded St. Peter’s Basilica, the site of Peter’s burial and the location of Perugino’s fresco. Thus, the inclusion of the Arch of Constantine was an important reference to the history of Rome, and St. Peter and the basilica.