“The Tears of Saint Peter” by El Greco shows the saint in tearful repentance with the “Keys of Heaven” tied around his wrist. El Greco painted at least six different autograph variants over the course of his career in Spain. In this painting St Peter raises his tear-filled eyes to Heaven, his hands joined in prayer. The background scene on the left represents the Magdalen returning from the empty tomb after receiving the announcement of Christ’s resurrection from an angel.
The tears of Saint Peter were used by theologians of the Counter-Reformation as a way of drawing a parallel between the saint’s weakness and mortal man. The tearful image was used to elicit an emotional response from the believer to the image and to the church. El Greco made this subject, which was new in the Counter-Reformation period, one of his specialities. This image of St Peter by El Greco is always shown with white hair and beard, and he often wears his yellow cloak over a blue tunic.
Saint Peter (30 AD to 64-68 AD), also known as Simon Peter, was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ, is traditionally regarded as the first Bishop of Rome. He is venerated as a major saint and as the founder of the Roman Church. In the Gospel of Matthew 16:19, Jesus says to Peter:
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
The “keys of heaven” or “keys of Saint Peter” are seen as a symbol of papal authority. The crossed keys in the coat of arms of the Holy See symbolise the keys of heaven entrusted to Simon Peter. Saint Peter is often depicted in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox paintings and other artwork as holding a key or a set of keys. The general layout of St Peter’s Basilica also is roughly key-shaped; evocative of the keys entrusted to Saint Peter. Since the 16th century, a symbolical pair of keys is created for every pope and buried on death with him.
Doménikos Theotokópoulos, widely known as El Greco, Spanish for “The Greek”, was a painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance. The artist normally signed his paintings with his full birth name in Greek letters, Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος (Doménikos Theotokópoulos), often adding the word Κρής (Krēs, “Cretan”). He is best known for elongated figures and for marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting.
El Greco was born in Crete, which at that time was part of the Republic of Venice, and the centre of Post-Byzantine art. He trained and became a master Byzantine art before travelling to Venice to work, then he moved to Rome, where he opened a workshop and executed a series of works. In 1577, he moved to Toledo, Spain, where he lived and worked until his death. In Toledo, El Greco received several major commissions and produced his best-known paintings.
El Greco’s style was met with puzzlement by his 14th-century contemporaries, but he found greater appreciation in more modern times and is regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism. His works were a source of inspiration for poets and writers, and he is considered, as an artist, so individual that he belongs to no conventional school.
- Title: The Tears of Saint Peter
- Artist: El Greco
- Year: 1596
- Medium: Oil on panel
- Dimensions: 96.5 × 79 cm (38 × 31.1 in)
- Museum: Museo Soumaya
Artist Essential Facts:
- Name: El Greco – “The Greek”
- Greek: Doménikos Theotokópoulos
- Birth: 1541 – Heraklion, Crete
- Died: 1614 (aged 73) – Toledo, Spain
- Nationality: Greek
- Movement: Mannerism
- Notable works:
“The habit doesn’t make the monk. – El hábito no hace al monje. “
Photo Credit: El Greco [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons