Perugino: Christ Delivering the Keys of the Kingdom to Saint Peter

Between 1481 and 1483, Pope Sixtus the IV employed several different artists to decorate the walls of the newly built Sistine Chapel. Examples of artists he summoned are Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Perugino (“Pietro Vannucco of Perugia”). Perugino painted the painting titled Christ Delivering the Keys of the Kingdom to Saint Peter.

Christ Delivering the Keys of the Kingdom to Saint Peter, Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome, Italy, 1481-1483

In the painting, Perugino depicts Jesus handing the keys to Saint Peter, who is kneeling among a crowd composed of the other disciples and some Renaissance contemporaries. This is the group of people closest to the viewer. In the background, there is the great piazza. There are also two of the same triumphal arches, one on each side of the piazza. Between the architecture and the group in the front, there are figures scattered on the pavement. These figures serve to emphasize the distance and density between the architecture and the group of people closest to the viewer. In Christ Delivering the Keys of the Kingdom to Saint Peter, Perugino constructs the painting following linear perspective. The lines from the pavement all converge at a point at the center of the piazza. Using linear perspective helps emphasize the closeness of Jesus and Peter to the viewer and the large distance between the viewer and the piazza and arches in the background.

This painting contains a lot of religious meaning. The papacy had, from the very beginning, based its claim to total authority over the Roman Catholic Church on the biblical event depicted in the picture. Thus, it is no surprise that this subject matter was one that greatly appealed to Pope Sixtus IV. There is also a deep meaning in the two duplicate triumphal arches in the background of the painting. Although the arches are an anachronism in a painting that depicts Christ and Saint Peter, the arches highlight the close ties between Saint Peter and Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor and the emperor who built Saint Peter’s Basilica on top of Saint Peter’s tomb in Rome.

What I find really interesting about this painting is that its organization is much more complex than simply what meets the eye. The main composition in the painting is a large triangle with the following three points as its vertices: Christ and Saint Peter at one point, and the two triumphal arches, each creating a vertex. Christ and Saint Peter flank the compositional triangle’s central axis, which runs through the doorway of the temple situated in the middle of the background. The doorway of the temple is also the perspective’s vanishing point. Thus, by creating a compositional triangle and by using linear perspective, Perugino interlocks two- and three-dimensional space. The placement of the central actors, Christ and Peter, emphasizes their importance in the painting and emphasizes the axial center as well.

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