Matthew 26:69–75; Mark 14:66–72; Luke 22:54–62; John 18:15–18, 25–27

Peter’s Denial of Christ

Rembrandt van Rijn

The Denial of St Peter, 1660, Oil on canvas, 54 x 169 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Purchased with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Sin (Before the Cock Crows)

Commentary by Clemena Antonova

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Read by Chloë Reddaway

This painting represents the moment in the story of Peter’s denial of Christ which is most intensely infused with psychological and emotional drama. It is a unique gift of the Lukan account, for only Luke records that while Peter was speaking ‘the Lord turned and looked at Peter’ (Luke 22:61).

Rembrandt establishes two main arenas of action in his painting. Standing by the fire in the courtyard of the high priest, Peter dominates the foreground, while in the background we see Christ in the High Priest’s house, where he is being interrogated. There are many precedents—going back to early Christian times—for the combination of these two scenes within a single image (Réau 1957: 439 ff).

Peter is being approached by a servant-girl, holding a candlestick. The light of the candlestick illuminates Peter’s face and his lips, which are just beginning to form a denial. Peter has already denied knowing Christ twice—in Luke’s account, this is once to the servant-girl (vv.56–57) and later to one of the men in the courtyard (v.58). Although Rembrandt includes the servant-girl, the artist clearly intended to show Peter’s third renunciation of Jesus (again to a male accuser) (vv.59–60). At this moment, Peter remembers the Lord’s prediction at the Last Supper only a few hours earlier: ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times’ (v.61).

Rembrandt depicts not the denial itself, but the split second preceding Peter’s words. Jesus has turned in the direction of Peter, but is not yet looking at him (v.61). We are shown an action in the process of happening; invited into the moment of maximum tension just before the climax of the drama. Peter still has the choice of recanting and withdrawing his denial.

But viewers familiar with the biblical text can complete the narrative. Peter will deny his Lord a third time and will thus condemn himself to bitter self-reproach.



Jefferson, Hunter. 1980. ‘Three Versions of Peter’s Denial’, Hudson Review 33.1: 39–57

Judson, J.R. 1964. ‘Pictorial Sources for Rembrandt’s Denial of St. Peter’, Oud Holland 79.3: 141–51

Réau, L. 1957. Iconographie de l’art Chrétien, vol. 2 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France)

Vinicius Silva de Almeida [Vinícius S.A]

Tears of Saint Peter (Lagrimas de São Pedro), 2005–21, 6,000 light bulbs filled with water (various numbers in different locations), Installation, Brazil; © Vinicius S.A (Vinicius Silva de Almeida); Photo: Erivan Morais Junior

Repentance (Transforming Tears)

Commentary by Clemena Antonova

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Read by Chloë Reddaway

On the night of Christ’s arrest and trial, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times in a row (Luke 22:56–60) and then he ‘wept bitterly’ (v.62). Thus, Peter becomes a paradigm of the sinner, while his subsequent tears acquire a profound and exemplary theological significance. The short phrase ‘wept bitterly’ signifies the very Christian move from sin to repentance, which marks the spiritual transformation of the sinner. It is no surprise that Peter’s tears become a celebrated subject in the history of art.

The contemporary Brazilian artist Vinícius Silva de Almeida's Tears of Saint Peter (Lagrimas de São Pedro) uses hundreds of light bulbs, filled with water, and suspended on near-invisible nylon threats. The whole creates an impression of rain, or even tears, falling from the sky. The title of the work takes its cue from a series of festivals celebrated in Brazil in June, including the feast of Saint Peter on the 29th, which heralds the rainy season and gives rural communities in particular an opportunity to thank the saints for their assistance in providing the rain.

Encountering this installation, and knowing its title, some viewers may find themselves reflecting on the interconnection of sorrow with healing in Peter’s story. It is a story that suggests that the mercy of God is infinite and even the most terrible of sins is forgivable, but also that the path to divine mercy and forgiveness passes through repentance. It is possible to view the ‘tears’ of this installation, when interpreted from a Christian perspective, as a sign of human repentance, but also as a pointer to the promise of divine grace that, for those who repent, will ‘drop down … from above’ (Isaiah 45:8).

It is striking that this paradigm of repentance should be Peter, who is distinguished among all the apostles. It is Peter who becomes the ‘Rock of the Church’, the first among the male disciples who is granted the vision of the risen Christ (Galatians 2:9; 1 Corinthians 15:5). And Peter is singled out not despite of, but exactly because of his failure. Pope Leo I (440–61 CE) called Peter the first human ‘expert’ in divine humility (Uhalde 2009). His moment of weakness is only the beginning of his spiritual journey, which will go through tears and repentance and end, Christ-like, at the cross.



Hansen, Kerra Gazerro. 2012. ‘The Blessing of Tears: The Order of Preachers and Domenico Cavalca in St Catherine of Sienna’s “Dialogo della divina provvidenza”’, Italica, 89.2: 145–61

Porubcan, Stefan. 1967. ‘The Consciousness of Peter’s Primacy in the New Testament’, Archivum Historiae Pontificiae 5: 9–39

Uhalde, Kevin. 2009. ‘Pope Leo I on Power and Failure’, Catholic Historical Review 95.4: 671–88

Michelangelo Buonarroti

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, c.1542, Fresco, 625 x 662 cm (approx.), The Vatican; Scala / Art Resource, NY

Martyrdom (The World Turned Upside Down)

Commentary by Clemena Antonova

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Read by Chloë Reddaway

The crucifixion of Peter is not mentioned in the Bible, but martyrdom is implied in the message of the narrative. The motif of the crucifixion derives from early Christian texts (Eusebius Eccl. Hist. 2.25; 1 Clem. 5.4, etc.), which invariably emphasize that Peter was nailed on the cross upside down. Peter himself asked to be martyred in this way, as he felt it was unseemly for him to die in the exact manner of the Lord. Thus, the humility he learned in bitter tears on the night of Jesus’s arrest would eventually determine even the manner of his death.

The crucifixion of Peter was rarely represented in medieval art. A figure shown upside down makes an awkward candidate for the believer seeking solace from the presence of a saint, which is mostly communicated through the face. What Michelangelo did in his fresco in the Cappella Paolina was, thus, highly original—he depicted a slightly earlier moment in the narrative. Instead of representing Peter already hanging on his cross, he showed the saint nailed on a cross that was in the process of being raised. In other words, the iconographical type of The Crucifixion of St Peter was transformed to The Raising of the Cross of St Peter.

The focus on the moment before the cross is being raised allows Michelangelo to show Peter’s face, forcefully turned around and looking directly at the viewer. The saint’s gaze connects the pictorial space and the viewer’s space and makes us part of the sacred drama, an effect that falls in line with contemporary Counter-Reformation spirituality.

Here, the one who so forcefully denied his Lord while Jesus was on trial undergoes his own final trial. We now find ourselves in his place, fixed by his gaze, as he once was by Christ’s (Luke 22:61).



Friedlaender, Walter. 1945. ‘The Crucifixion of St. Peter: Caravaggio and Reni’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 8: 152–60

Steinberg, Leo. 1975. Michelangelo’s Last Paintings: The Conversion of St Paul and The Crucifixion of St Peter in the Cappella Paolina, the Vatican Palace (New York: Oxford University Press)

Wallace, William E. 1989. ‘Narrative and Religious Expression in Michelangelo’s Pauline Chapel’, Arbitus et Historiae 19

Rembrandt van Rijn :

The Denial of St Peter, 1660 , Oil on canvas

Vinicius Silva de Almeida [Vinícius S.A] :

Tears of Saint Peter (Lagrimas de São Pedro), 2005–21 , 6,000 light bulbs filled with water (various numbers in different locations)

Michelangelo Buonarroti :

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, c.1542 , Fresco

Three Moments of Spiritual Growth

Comparative commentary by Clemena Antonova

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Read by Chloë Reddaway

The first moment: The story of Peter’s denial of Jesus, recounted by each of the Gospel-writers, is surely one of the most dramatic in the New Testament. After his arrest, Christ is taken to the house of the High Priest to be interrogated. Peter follows and it is in the courtyard of the priest’s house that he disowns Jesus—not once, not twice, but three times. In Luke’s version, the first denial is to a servant girl, while both the second and third are to two male accusers. The other Gospels refer to a second female servant (Matthew 26:71), a group of questioners (John 18:25), and one of the high priest’s servants (John 18:26).

With each question, Peter is forced to face a moral dilemma. In this respect, the New Testament narrative follows the logic of ancient Greek tragedy: each question gives the main protagonist a fatal choice. With each decision—in this case, with each denial—the tension rises and builds towards a climax.

The Lukan account is unique in that it adds a detail of particular psychological depth and intensity. At the very instant of Peter’s last denial, Christ turns around and looks at Peter accusingly. Rembrandt’s painting visualizes exactly this episode. Christ is turning in the direction of Peter, but is not yet looking directly at him. Peter still has a choice; he need never be confronted by the accusing gaze of Jesus. The viewer though—if familiar with the biblical story—knows that Peter will fail. With his third denial, he commits knowingly and finally a grave sin.

The second moment: Having denied the Lord thrice, Peter is faced with the enormity of his sin. He flees the scene of his crime and, overcome by remorse, starts weeping. None of the Gospels elaborates on this moment and, yet, it is the brief mention of the act of weeping and Peter’s tears that signal the theologically significant move from sin to repentance, which is also the beginning of spiritual growth.

The art installation of the contemporary artist Vicinius S.A. captures something important and meaningful by focusing exclusively on the tears of Peter. What the work does is to take the tears out of the narrative flow and to show their wider, universal significance. Any sin, even the most horrible one, is forgivable in the eyes of God, so long as the human being has the spiritual strength to truly repent. It is repentance that opens the possibility of spiritual transformation. It is also repentance that confirms the value of God’s Incarnation and his ultimate sacrifice for humanity. As Jesus said, ‘it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5:31–32, also in Mark 2:17; Matthew 9:13).

The third moment: The New Testament does not mention the crucifixion of Peter. At the same time, the martyrdom of Peter, which is the subject of early Christian texts, can be read as a logical, even necessary, development of Peter’s role in the biblical story.

On the one hand, Peter is every sinner who repents and, therefore, a model for every Christian whose life is devoted to spiritual growth. On the other hand, Peter is the apostle whom Jesus Himself distinguished among all the others.

What makes Peter’s story such a vivid one is the radical transformation he underwent, from the lowest point of his three-fold denial of Christ to the highest point of his Christ-like death on the cross—sharing his Saviour’s fate and entering into the glory of the martyrs. The manner of death—upside-down—is not a matter of accident, but consistent with the idea of Peter’s humility. Michelangelo’s fresco in the Cappella Paolina is a striking study of the pain of martyrdom, but also, and more importantly, of the possibility—granted to humanity by God—that we can grow beyond sin.



Gertsman, E. 2012. Crying in the Middle Ages: Tears of History (New York: Routledge)

Uhalde, Kevin. 2009. ‘Pope Leo I on Power and Failure’, Catholic Historical Review 95.4: 671–88

Next exhibition: Matthew 27:1–10 Next exhibition: Mark 15:16–20 Next exhibition: Luke 23:26-32 Next exhibition: John 19:1–3

Matthew 26:69–75; Mark 14:66–72; Luke 22:54–62; John 18:15–18, 25–27

Revised Standard Version

Matthew 26

69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a maid came up to him, and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” 70But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” 71And when he went out to the porch, another maid saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72And again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” 73After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” 74Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the cock crowed. 75And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Mark 14

66 And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the maids of the high priest came; 67and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him, and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” 68But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway. 69And the maid saw him, and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 70But again he denied it. And after a little while again the bystanders said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” 71But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” 72And immediately the cock crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

Luke 22

54 Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. Peter followed at a distance; 55and when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. 56Then a maid, seeing him as he sat in the light and gazing at him, said, “This man also was with him.” 57But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” 58And a little later some one else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” 59And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” 60But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are saying.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. 61And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” 62And he went out and wept bitterly.

John 18

15 Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. As this disciple was known to the high priest, he entered the court of the high priest along with Jesus, 16while Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the maid who kept the door, and brought Peter in. 17The maid who kept the door said to Peter, “Are not you also one of this man’s disciples?” He said, “I am not.” 18Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves; Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.

25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They said to him, “Are not you also one of his disciples?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” 26One of the servants of the high priest, a kinsman of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27Peter again denied it; and at once the cock crowed.