The Penitent Saint Peter
El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), 1541–1614
Gift of Anne R. and Amy Putnam, 1940:76
One of El Greco’s most enduring devotional images, The Penitent Saint Peter was a subject to which the painter often returned, and this is one of at least six known versions of the composition. The painting depicts the repentant Saint Peter, distraught at having denied that he knew Christ when questioned on the eve of the crucifixion.
The saint is dramatically isolated, set against the dark trunk of a tree and lit by an ethereal light that emphasizes his soulful expression and posture. The scene in the background at left shows Mary Magdalene returning from Christ’s tomb: having received the news of Christ’s resurrection from an angel, she runs to tell Saint Peter.
This work is marked by a religious intensity that can be related to the concerns of the Counter-Reformation church. The biblical description of Saint Peter’s penitence in the days after the crucifixion was used by Counter-Reformation Catholics to justify the sacrament of penance or confession, which had been challenged by Protestantism. Devotional concerns aside, the canvas is a quintessential example of El Greco’s painterly virtuosity and of the poignant humanity of his figures.
View a discussion of The Penitent Saint Peter by Dr. John Marciari, former Curator of European Art.