The Mystery of Faith

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Morga Meis over at The Smart Set:

1610 was the last year of Caravaggio's life. In that final year, he painted “The Denial of Saint Peter.” The painting usually hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Right now it is in Los Angeles, at LACMA for a show called “Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy.” It is not the featured painting of the show. It is not, even, a painting that your typical Caravaggio lover would be expected to love. It is darker than most of the more famous Caravaggios, murky even. It doesn't have the disturbing imagery or the intense physical luminescence of a painting like “Judith Beheading Holofernes.” You could call it a subtle painting, from a painter not usually singled out for his subtlety.

The painting is a scene from the Gospels. On the day that Jesus is to be arrested, he tells the Apostle Peter that Peter will deny him three times before the next morning. Peter swears this is impossible. Soon after, Jesus is betrayed by Judas and taken by the authorities. The apostles have scattered in fear and confusion. A servant girl points Peter out among the crowd and tries to expose him as also a follower of Jesus. No, no, Peter says, you have got the wrong fellow. Peter is worried for his own life now. As foretold, Peter goes on, three times, to deny any relationship to Jesus.

This is the moment that Caravaggio captures in his painting. The servant girl, the accuser, stands in the middle of the painting, just off to the left, next to a soldier brought, presumably, to arrest Peter. Peter stands at the right of the painting, facing slightly toward the viewer. His hands are turned in toward his own body, gesturing at himself in his act of denial. Light from an unseen source somewhere to the left of the painting shines strongly on Peter's forehead. The soldier is in shadow; his face can barely be seen. The servant girl is partially blocked from the light by the body of the soldier, but a strip of the same light that is falling upon Peter catches her squarely in the eyes. The painting seems to be a straightforward illustration of this biblical scene at a crucial moment. Will Peter be exposed? Will he admit who he really is?

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