El Greco’s picture of Peter makes a connection between Peter’s repentant tears and his worthiness to carry the keys that hang beneath his wrist. Peter is to be entrusted with the fearful responsibility of loosing and binding primarily because he knows that he himself lives as a forgiven sinner. Peter’s eyes are magnified by the tears that fill them, his hands clasped together in the fervour of his repentance; his whole being is shaped by the forgiveness of the one who has entrusted those keys to him. Peter is not likely to rush to harsh judgements of others.
The Gospels describe Peter setting off, with typical self-confidence, to follow Jesus after his arrest, and to stay with him come what may (Matthew 26:35, 58; Mark 14:31, 54; Luke 22:33, 54). Yet within hours, Peter is denying any knowledge of Jesus at all (Matthew 26:69–75; Mark 14:66–72; Luke 22:54–62; John 18:15–27).
But the Synoptic Gospels also suggest that Peter was the only disciple there at the time. Perhaps, from among their circle, only he and Jesus knew the full import of what happened in his denial (Luke 22:61). When, after the resurrection, Jesus seeks out Peter in the moving scene depicted in John 21, the conversation is still only between Jesus and Peter. Yet it never occurs to Peter to keep this private: he knows that this is what makes it possible for him to be a shepherd of God’s flock; the discipline of humility is an essential part of his leadership.
The elders to whom 1 Peter 5 is addressed are not encouraged to dwell on their own merits: they are told to be humble, to trust in God’s care, to be disciplined and alert, to think more of the sufferings of others than of their own, and to keep everything in an eternal perspective. No light task unless, like Peter, they are deeply formed by their primary relationship with God. El Greco’s Peter has his eyes fixed on the only source of hope, and so he carries the keys to the gates of death and hell.
Haliburton, John. 1987. The Authority of a Bishop (London: SPCK)
Marias, Fernando. 2013. El Greco: Life and Work (London: Thames and Hudson)
John Paul II, Pope. 1995. ‘Ut Unum Sint: On Commitment to Ecumenism, 25 May 1995’, www.vatican.va [accessed 13 October 2020]
5So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. 2Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, 3not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. 4And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. 5Likewise you that are younger be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. 7Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. 8Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. 9Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. 10And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. 11To him be the dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
12 By Silvaʹnus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God; stand fast in it. 13She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark. 14Greet one another with the kiss of love.
Peace to all of you that are in Christ.