Saint Peter Paying the Tribute with a Piece of Silver Found in a Fish

George Hayter

Saint Peter Paying the Tribute with a Piece of Silver Found in a Fish, 1817, Oil on canvas, 117 x 170 cm, Private Collection ?, © Sotheby’s, London

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Hijacking Scripture

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George Hayter’s retelling of the episode of the Tribute Money relies less on the reading of Scripture as on the circumstances of its own commission.

The English artist was in Rome when he painted this work, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, and in the entourage of his patron, John Russell, the sixth Duke of Bedford. Hayter adopts the style and palette of Roman seventeenth-century painting, and in the golden cloaked apostle pointing at the fish he cleverly references Christ’s gesture in Caravaggio’s famous painting of the Calling of Matthew, in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. The figure might indeed be Matthew, once a tax collector at Capernaum, his cloak the colour of money, and his interest in the transaction stirring memories of his past.

The fresh-faced youth about to collect the tribute money is a disguised portrait of the 25-year-old artist. He is smartly kitted out as a Roman legionary, though the Byronic quiff protruding from under his helmet in a most unsoldierly fashion betrays his real identity.

The dramatic focus of the painting, despite its title, lies not with Peter and the tax collector, but with the brown-bearded disciple with receding hair. His forehead pushes against, as his gaze cuts across, the ridged vertical of the tax collector’s spear, his attention riveted on the bright silver shekel Peter tilts towards him like a tiny mirror. Christ meanwhile plays no part in the narrative, but looks away, abstracted in contemplation of the apostle whose finger presses into the gills of the dead fish.

The painting was commissioned as a gift for the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, president of the Roman artists’ guild, the Accademia di San Luca, as a tribute for Hayter’s admission to this revered institution. At the same time, the Duke of Bedford was in the process of acquiring Canova’s Three Graces, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The painting might, therefore, be seen as the painterly 'shekel' Hayter and the duke paid as their due to one of the early nineteenth century’s artistic ‘kings of the earth’: Canova. But might Christ’s detachment also be read as censure, of the worldly artist and his wealthy patron trying to buy their way in heaven with a painted coin?

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