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“The Repentant St. Peter” by Francisco Goya

Francisco José de Goya - The Repentant St. Peter

“The Repentant St. Peter” by Francisco Goya

“The Repentant St. Peter” by Francisco Goya shows the saint in tearful repentance with the “Keys of Heaven.” In this painting, St Peter raises his tear-filled eyes to Heaven, and his hands are joined in prayer. 

This image of St Peter is reminiscent of the earlier El Greco paintings, which also show the saint with white hair and beard, and his yellow cloak over a blue tunic.

In the Goya’s version, the saint is shown balder and much heavier set than the El Greco elongated and austere depictions.

Goyer painted this image four years before his death, during a period of seclusion when his work became progressively darker and pessimistic. 

In Goya’s late period, he was disillusioned by the political and social developments in Spain, and he lived in near isolation. Goya eventually abandoned Spain in 1824 to retire to the French city of Bordeaux.

Tearful Saint Peter

During El Greco’s time, the tearful Saint Peter was 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 the church. Saint Peter (30 AD to 64-68 AD) was also known as Simon Peter.

He was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ and 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 the “keys of Saint Peter” are seen as a symbol of papal authority. The crossed keys in the coat of arms of the Holy See symbolize 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.

Francisco Goya

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746 – 1828) was a Spanish painter and printmaker. He was the most important Spanish artist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Goya was famously successful in his lifetime, the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns.

He was born to a modest family in Aragon, Spain, and started the study of painting from the age of 14. He married at the age of 27, and after a series of pregnancies and miscarriages, only one child, a son, survived into adulthood.

Goya became the court painter to the Spanish Crown in 1786. This early part of his career is marked by portraits of the Spanish aristocracy, royalty, and Rococo style tapestry cartoons designed for the royal palace.

Goya suffered a severe illness in 1793, which left him deaf. Sick and disillusioned, his work became progressively darker and pessimistic. His later paintings, prints, and drawings seem to reflect a bleaker outlook. 

In 1807 Napoleon led the French army into war against Spain. Goya remained in Madrid during the war, and what he experienced seems to have affected him deeply.

Other works from this period of his life include paintings concerned with insanity, mental asylums, witches, fantastical creatures, and religious and political corruption.

This subject matter suggests that he feared for both his country’s fate and his own psychological and physical health.

In Goya’s late period, he was disillusioned by the political and social developments in Spain, and he lived in near isolation.

Goya eventually abandoned Spain in 1824 to retire to the French city of Bordeaux, accompanied by his younger maid and his companion.

Following a stroke that left him paralyzed on his right side and suffering failing eyesight, he died and was buried in 1828, aged 82.

His body was later re-interred in Madrid. Famously, however, Goya’s skull went missing, a detail the Spanish consul in France immediately communicated to his superiors in Madrid.

The Spanish authorities wired back, “Send Goya, with or without a head.”

 The Repentant St. Peter

  • Title:                        The Repentant St. Peter
  • Artist:                      Francisco Goya
  • Year:                        1824
  • Medium:                 Oil on panel
  • Dimensions:            Height: 28.75 mm (1.13 in). Width: 25.25 mm (0.99 in).
  • Museum:                 The Phillips Collection

Francisco Goya

Francisco Goya Understanding Modern Art

Historical Figures who lost their Skulls

Several heads from dead celebrities have gone missing over the years. The motive may be an extreme version of celebrity collectibles or in the pursuit of studies in phrenology.

Phrenology was the analysis of the character of the person according to the shape of their skull. Phrenology was a field which was very much in vogue in the first half of the 1800s.

For whatever reason the following historical figures were discovered to have lost all or portions of their skulls:

  • Mozart (1756 – 1791), the influential Austrian composer of the classical era
  • Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809), the Austrian composer of the classical period
  • Beethoven (1770[1] – 1827), the German composer and pianist
  • Marquis de Sade (1740 – 1814), the French nobleman, revolutionary politician, philosopher, and writer, famous for his libertine sexuality.
  • Goya (1746 – 1828), a Spanish painter and printmaker.

They all lost their heads during the height of the Phrenology period. The central phrenological notion was that by measuring the contours of the skull, one could predict personality.

A German physician developed this theory in 1796, and the discipline was influential in the 19th century, especially from about 1810 until 1840. Phrenology is today recognized as pseudoscience.

The Untold Truth Of St. Peter

A Tour of The Phillips Collection

A Tour of Washington, D.C. Museums

The Search for St. Peter

St. Peter


“Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”
– Francisco de Goya


Photo Credit: Francisco de Goya [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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