Sunday, April 3, 2016

John 21.1-19: A Long Way from the Beach

Easter 3C's gospel reading (John 21:1-19) is filled with moments that would provide good artistic compositions: Jesus building a charcoal fire, the disciples in the boat, eating breakfast on the beach. While the conversation between Jesus and Peter is not especially visual, it provides a record against which we can measure depictions of the act foretold when it is fulfilled. Jesus said these things, the text tells us, to indicate the kind of death with which Peter would glorify God.

Peter's death is almost immediately recognizable in art. Like Jesus, he is crucified. His cross, however, is upside down, so his feet are toward the sky and his head is toward the ground. How much of this is foretold in Jesus' words? As with many things, it depends on who you talk to.

Pseudo Hegesippus' De excidio Urbis Hiersolymitenae (On the ruin of the City Jerusalem) iii.2 and the apocryphal Acts of Peter (XXXVII) are among the early written tradition that Peter was crucified upside down. This becomes the standard depiction of Peter's death. Church historian Eusebius declares that upside down crucifixion was not uncommon (8.8.2).

The detail most often identified as indicative of upside-down crucifixion is the girdle or belt to which Jesus alludes. Justin Martyr (Dialogue contra Typho 91) and Irenaeus (Adversus Haeruses II.24.4) characterize the cross of crucifixion as having four points toward the extremities and a point in the middle, a sedile (a small block of wood or projecting peg that acted as a seat or support for the body attached to the cross). The girdle mentioned by Christ was the "mechanism" used to secure a body upside down on a cross. As the body could not rest on the sedile, there had to be another way to support the body's weight. The girdle Jesus mentions was tied around the hips of the one being crucified in order to bind the body to the cross. The hands and feet were often, apparently, tied to the cross.

Some of the preceding elements are present in the painting by Guercino below. Peter's feet and hands are being tied to the beams of the cross, though he has not yet been raised/inverted. We know this is Peter by the keys than hang from his right hand. His blue tunic is being pulled from him, and he gazes upward, seemingly in resignation but seeking reassurance from on high.
Giovan Francesco Barbieri (known as Guercino). The Martyrdom of St. Peter. 1618-1619. 
Modena, Italy: Galleria Estense.
The composition of this painting, unlike many others - including the subject of this week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page - centers around a hole. Faces and figures circle an intensely blue sky. This composition circles around nothing, starting with the disciple's body - the lightest part of the composition - and leading the eye of the viewer around in a counterclockwise movement (the diagonal of the blue cloak leads to the arm of the person pulling the cloak which leads to the bare-chested person, whose finger points upward to the angel in the sky. A more direct route would be to follow the sight line of the resigned apostle. He looks directly up - straight at the angel in the sky.

Nothing is upside down here, though the many diagonal lines that outnumber the verticals and horizontals. Guercino's choice not to show Peter in his typical upside down fashion takes away the oddness and reminds us that right side up or upside down, Peter's reward for his faith is death.

It's a long way from the beach and the joy of seeing Jesus again.

Cimabue's version of Peter's crucifixion raises some geographical questions. Click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link to read more about it. 

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