Christ appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way (Domine, Quo Vadis?) by Annibale Carracci

Annibale Carracci

Christ appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way (Domine, Quo Vadis?), 1601–2, Oil on panel, 1601–2, The National Gallery, London; Bought, 1826, NG9, Photo: © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

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Named and Unashamed

Commentary by

It is especially poignant that the author (actual or implied) of this exhortation to share Christ’s sufferings is the apostle Peter. The memory of Peter’s denial of Christ was widespread among early Christians. Peter was ashamed to be associated with Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest: not once, but three times (Mark 14:68, 70, 71). But Peter is also a potent symbol of the transformative power of grace. Simon’s new name ‘Peter’, ‘rock’ (Matthew 16:18; John 1:42), is less an indicator of his character than of what he would become.

But how long would it take Simon to live up to his new name? More importantly, when would Peter be bold enough to publicly declare Christ’s name, and suffer for it?

Annibale Carracci depicts a scene, not from the New Testament, but from Christian tradition.

Many years have passed since that threefold failure in Jerusalem. An elderly Peter, having preached the gospel in Rome, flees the city, only to encounter Christ on the Appian Way. Quo vadis, Domine? (‘Where are you going, Lord?’). Christ, bearing the marks of his passion, replies that he is headed for Rome, to be crucified again. Carracci’s Peter recoils at this prospect of suffering. Yet this encounter also marks a turning-point. Peter will return to the city, and face crucifixion in Christ’s stead. Posterity will claim both Peter and Paul as founding martyr-apostles of the Roman church.

Our passage presents an apostle who has made that transition. He has learned from his mistakes, and is no longer ashamed of Christ’s name. Now he boldly encourages his fellow Christians, scattered across the provinces of Asia Minor, to suffer joyfully ‘as a Christian’ (1 Peter 4:16). The name ‘Christian’ almost certainly emerged as a term of abuse, used by pagan neighbours (Acts 11:26). Yet now it has become a badge of honour, for those, like Peter, unashamed of their association with Christ. 

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