The Liberation of St Peter from Prison, from the Stanza di Eliodoro by Raphael

Raphael

The Liberation of St Peter from Prison, from the Stanza di Eliodoro, 1514, Fresco, Width: 560 cm, Stanza di Eliodoro, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City, Scala / Art Resource, NY

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Liberation and Light

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This fresco was painted by Raphael in the early sixteenth century as part of a larger commission for the decoration of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. It uses three scenes to depict Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, split by the architecture of the room (the shuttered windows in the recess at the centre) and the architecture included within the painting itself. There is a certain chronology to these scenes, with the sleeping soldiers on the viewer’s left, the angel waking the slumbering Peter in the centre, and the angel and Peter making their escape on the right.

However, any straightforward scene-by-scene re-telling of the biblical story is complicated by the ways in which they intersect: already on the left-hand side, one soldier wakes another to point to the central scene, yet the soldiers on the right-hand side remain asleep as Peter approaches. This interplay contributes to the air of unreality that pervades the biblical account: is this really happening or is this just a dream?

It has been suggested that the face of Peter has a likeness to that of Pope Julius II (1443–1513), the man who commissioned Raphael’s work. The fresco has been seen to represent the hoped-for liberation of Italy from French control within the so-called Italian Wars. St Peter in Chains is a Feast Day in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, and relics of these chains are held in the church of this same name in Rome.

One of the most frequently noted aspects of the painting is the use of light and shadow. The nocturnal setting for Raphael’s composition showcases the light of the moon, the soldier’s burning torch, the approaching dawn, the divine light of the angel, and the reflection of the light upon the soldiers’ armour. All of this is enriched by the natural light that floods through the windows below. The rich symbolism of light as divine presence and as hope is brought to life within this fresco.

 

References

Barolsky, Paul. 2015. ‘In the Light of Raphael’, Notes in the History of Art 34.2: 14–18

Hornik, Heidi. 2010. ‘Liberation from Tyranny’, Christian Reflections 35: 48–52


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