Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601) by Caravaggio
Interpretation of Baroque History Painting

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The Crucifixion of St. Peter
By Caravaggio.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601)


Explanation of Other Paintings by Caravaggio


Name: The Crucifixion of St. Peter (1601)
Artist: Caravaggio (1571-1610)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: History painting
Movement: Italian Baroque art
Location: Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

For an explanation of other important pictures from the Baroque era, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For analysis of pictures by
Baroque artists
like Caravaggio, see
our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Interpretation of the Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Caravaggio

Caravaggio, one of the best artists of all time, is best-known for his naturalistic style of Baroque painting which supplanted Mannerism and revolutionized large scale religious art in Rome, and later Naples. Although a violent, unsavoury individual, who was shunned as a person by many of his contemporaries, he remains one of the most influential Italian Baroque artists of the 17th century. His first major breakthrough occurred in 1599 when he was commissioned to produce two religious paintings for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. These two pictures, focusing on scenes from the life of Saint Matthew, were an immediate sensation and led to the commissions in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo for The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601) and The Conversion on the Way to Damascus (1601). These four masterpieces established Caravaggio as one of the best history painters in Rome, and the city's leading exponent of Catholic Counter-Reformation art, designed specifically to inspire the masses rather than the cognoscenti. But some church authorities viewed his Biblical art as impious and vulgar, and refused to accept it. His Death of the Virgin (c.1601-6, Louvre, Paris), for instance, was rejected on account of the Virgin Mary's rather ugly appearance. For more about Caravaggio and the competing styles of the early Italian Baroque, see: Classicism and Naturalism in 17th Century Italian Painting (1600-1700). For his impact on Neapolitan artists, please see: Caravaggio in Visits to Naples (1607-10) and the Neapolitan School of Painting (1600-56).

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (Crocifissione di san Pietro) hangs opposite its sister painting Conversion on the way to Damascus (1601) - also painted by Caravaggio - in the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Saint Peter and Saint Paul are often closely associated with one another because they were seen as joint founders of the Christian Church. Decorating the altar between the two pictures, but overshadowed by them, is the altarpiece Assumption of the Virgin Mary (1601) by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609). The dome of the chapel is decorated with fresco painting designed by Caravaggio but executed by one of his apprentices.

The Crocifissione di san Pietro portrays the martyrdom of St. Peter. Note that Peter insisted that he be crucified upside-down, so as not to imitate Jesus Christ.



As usual, Caravaggio has stripped the painting of all unnecessary items and, like the Conversion on the way to Damascus, has created an almost completely dark background so as to focus all attention on the plight of St Peter. In addition, note the exceptional naturalism deployed, which is based on the artist's observation of ordinary people going about their daily business, rather than well-worn studio conventions. Look carefully at the four figures in the picture and see how Caravaggio uses chiaroscuro to make his figures more three-dimensional. Another hallmark of Caravaggism was the use of strong contrasts of light and dark to produce intense drama. Known as tenebrism, this technique allowed Caravaggio to dramatize certain areas of the painting.

This Caravaggist crucifixion was never going to be easy. Caravaggio's revolutionary style of earthy realism would not tolerate such a thing. Instead, we see three middle-aged Romans, their faces shielded, struggling to erect the cross bearing the weight of the elderly but still muscular Peter. It is as if their crime already weighs on them.

The picture is based on a set of diagonals created by the wooden cross, the rope being hauled on by the figure in the brown top, and the arm and legs of the bottom figure. The colours are muted, as befits this low-key judicial murder. But perhaps the most insidious feature of the painting is the anonymity of those tasked with the execution, and its almost mundane implementation. With all the pushing and pulling and lifting, one almost loses sight of the fact that a man is being put to death. In another minute or so, Peter will be left hanging upside-down and he will start to die.

Caravaggio - or his patron, the Italian financier and art collector Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani (1564-1637) - may have based their choice of works on Michelangelo's frescoes - The Conversion of Saul and The Crucifixion of St Peter - in the Vatican's Capella Paolina (1546–1550). But the Caravaggio compositions are far more direct than the Mannerist painting of Michelangelo, which was seen as a failure by contemporary audiences. But see the fabulous Mannerist masterpiece by Tintoretto - The Crucifixion (1565).

Explanation of Other Paintings by Caravaggio

The Calling of St Matthew (1600) Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi.

The Martyrdom of St Matthew (1600) Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi.

Supper at Emmaus (1601) National Gallery, London.

The Entombment of Christ (1601-3) Vatican Museums, Rome.

Amor Vincit Omnia (Victorious Cupid) (1602) Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin.


• For an explanation of other Baroque history paintings, see: Homepage.

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