The humanity of Sts. Peter and Paul

"Saint Peter and Saint Paul" by Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652). Photo: Public Domain
“Saint Peter and Saint Paul” by Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652). Photo: Public Domain

Among the most well-known early Church leaders are Sts. Peter and Paul. These two remarkable men had very different beginnings, yet would go on to become Jesus’ foremost apostles and would eventually be martyred for their faith.

Peter, a humble fisherman, was one of Jesus’ original Twelve Apostles, and led the early Christian movement after Christ ascended into heaven. Saul, on the other hand, was a Pharisee, a Mosaic lawyer who persecuted the early Christian community before seeing a vision of Christ and converting.

Sts. Peter and Paul would dedicate the rest of their lives spreading Christ’s ministry and would eventually meet the same fate: martyred in Rome for their faith. Together, these men would become the foundation on which the Catholic Church would be built on. (The Church remembers St. Peter, the first pope, and St. Paul, the apostle to Gentiles, with the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, Apostles, on June 29.)

It is indeed remarkable that Christ’s message could inspire such different people. It is possible that many artists throughout the centuries would agree, as depictions of Sts. Peter and Paul are plentiful in Christian art. One painting that can help us learn about these two apostles is simply called Saint Peter and Saint Paul  by Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652) that was completed around 1616. The painting can currently be found in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Strasbourg, France.

In this painting, the two saints are depicted in one in tenebrism. Using this style, the artist creates a dramatic contrast in the uses of darkness and light. As such, the two saints are clearly in focus, giving the painting more emotional weight.

In the scene, one is clearly able to distinguish the older St. Peter on the left while the more youthful St. Paul is on the right. Because the background is so dark, the various objects attributed to both saints seem obscured. Upon further examining the painting, however, the objects become more apparent.

St. Paul is holding a sword in his right hand, which symbolizes his martyrdom. Upon the table, also featured in dark colors, are the keys of the Church, which are attributed to St. Peter. Finally, in between them is the book, which symbolizes New Testament writings. We can also see that both Peter and Paul are having a lively discussion about an open scroll in the center of the painting. In essence, it is the Word of God and the work of Christ that has brought these different men together.

What is truly striking about this painting, and about tenebrism in general, is the human emotion that is clearly portrayed on the figures in the painting. With the Renaissance’s hyper realism and the contrast of darkness and light, the viewer is truly drawn in to the painting and the emotions and the humanity of the figures portrayed in it.

We see here that de Ribera uses this to his advantage in showing the importance of the human aspect of these two men who dedicated and eventually lost their lives for their faith. This feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, let us remember their humanity, their dedication, and most importantly, their faith. Sts. Peter and Paul, pray for us!

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