The Repentant St Peter by El Greco

El Greco

The Repentant St Peter, After 1605, Oil on canvas, 93.7 x 75.2 cm, The Phillips Collection; Acquired 1922, Album / Art Resource, NY

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‘Humble Yourselves’

Commentary by

El Greco’s picture of Peter makes a connection between Peter’s repentant tears and his worthiness to carry the keys that hang on 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.

 

References

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]