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Francisco de Goya

Que pico de Oro! (What a golden beak!), from the series Los Caprichos, 1799, Etching and aquatint, 217 x 151 mm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1921-2074, Photo: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Andrea Commodi

Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1612–14, Oil on canvas, 170.69 x 182.88 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, 00123769, Scala / Art Resource, NY

Unknown, after Schacher

The Broad and Narrow Way; printed by Headly Brothers; published by Gawin Kirkham, 1883, Colour lithograph, 470 x 372 mm, The British Museum, London, 1999,0425.13, © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

Paths of Ambiguity

Comparative Commentary by

The fiery rhetoric and vivid imagery of 2 Peter 2 continues the prophetic traditions found in the Old Testament. Announcing itself to be written on the occasion of the author’s impending death (2 Peter 1:13–15), the letter conjures up images of divine judgement, as a means of highlighting the proper paths of Christian life.

The dating and authorship of 2 Peter have been subject to continued debate—its content and style more akin to the Epistle of Jude than the first Petrine letter. It distils a number of themes conveyed in the Sermon on the Mount, particularly in setting forth clear delineations between truth and falsehood, morality and corruption (see Matthew 7:13–20). Moreover, the letter makes brief references to a number of motifs and events (false prophets, the fall of the rebel angels) that are more thoroughly expounded elsewhere in the Bible, in both the New and Old Testaments. Thus, although these subjects have frequently been subject to visual representation, 2 Peter is rarely the direct source.

However, as Gawin Kirkham’s The Broad and Narrow Way demonstrates, it is crucial to consider texts like this as part of a complex network of biblical exegesis. And although one could spend considerable time tracing the linkages in this network (and Kirkham’s print is certainly not exhaustive in its biblical sources), the broader message is clear: one path of life is more accessible and alluring, yet results in destruction and damnation; the other is winding and difficult, but has light and salvation as its ultimate reward. The apex of the image—the all-seeing eye of God enclosed in a radiant, triangular form—is in fact a reference to Peter’s first letter, which, although stylistically distinct from 2 Peter, is in this case thoroughly relevant: ‘For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those that do evil’ (1 Peter 3:12).

The urgency of following the path of righteousness is made palpable by the extent to which false paths can be cloaked in seductive words and alluring imagery. It is not difficult to imagine someone reading the words in the letter of Peter and wondering if this is itself the work of a false prophet or teacher. That the presumed author was Christ’s most trusted apostle and the ‘rock’ on which his Church was built (Matthew 16:18) might assuage those concerns.

The challenge of detecting false prophets and teachers owes as much to appearances as it does to the spoken or written word. The imprint of diabolical forces is not always physically manifest and readily perceivable to the attentive (let alone the passive) viewer. Andrea Commodi’s fallen angels remain powerfully masculine in their heroic nudity, perhaps embodying the desires of the flesh of which Peter warns. The golden-beaked owl in Francisco de Goya’s print conveys a contradictory set of symbolic resonances—historically, the owl could be interpreted as a sign of wisdom or folly, as vigilance or an omen of death. This is particularly powerful and disconcerting in the wake of the Enlightenment, when it was widely thought that adherence to reason over blind faith would lead to better circumstances for the masses. As Goya was well aware by the time he produced Los Caprichos (and as would become even more evident with the Napoleonic invasion of Spain), what appears to be the right path forward may very well lead to destruction and tyranny.

In many ways, the three images discussed here cohere with the dogmatic rhetoric of 2 Peter 2, which asserts a kind of Manichean worldview with respect to right and wrong, good and evil. However, Goya’s and Commodi’s images also underscore, in more or less subtle terms, the difficulties in discerning that boundary, which appears so clear in the Kirkham print.

The anxiety that Peter’s letter has undoubtedly evoked among adherents is made all the more crushing in his final assertion that those who initially followed the path of righteousness and strayed from it are ultimately in direr straits than those who never knew the true way.

Next exhibition: 2 Peter 3