The tears of St Peter
In this painting Simon Peter weeps, an act of anguish and atonement. He has denied his friend and Lord, the one who he had named as Messiah (Christ) and Son of God. The eyes were understood to be the window to the soul, so these eyes reveal the deep sadness within Peter. Tears spill from him as he looks to heaven. Hanging from his wrist are a set of keys, a visual reference to St Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus gives to Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.
This painting is ‘The tears of St Peter’ (1587-96), by El Greco. El Greco painted this subject more than once, capturing the regret and sadness in the eyes of Peter. The painting exemplifies a defining moment of the counter-reformation, when the frailty and humanity of the saints, including St Peter, was preached as an example for those turning to Christ.
For a piece of music contemporary with this painting, and on the theme, listen to ‘Lagrime di San Pietro’ by Orlandus Lassus
“But what about you?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Impulsive master of misunderstanding
You comfort me with all your big mistakes;
Jumping the ship before you make the landing,
Placing the bet before you know the stakes.
I love the way you step out without knowing,
The way you sometimes speak before you think,
The way your broken faith is always growing,
The way he holds you even when you sink.
Born to a world that always tried to shame you,
Your shaky ego vulnerable to shame,
I love the way that Jesus chose to name you,
Before you knew how to deserve that name.
And in the end your Saviour let you prove
That each denial is undone by love.
A Sonnet for St Peter, Malcolm Guite
who inspired your apostle Saint Peter
to confess Jesus as Christ and Son of the living God:
build up your Church upon this rock,
that in unity and peace it may proclaim one truth
and follow one Lord, your Son our Saviour Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Collect of St Peter, Common Worship