Flame and Stone

“Flame and Stone”–that’s how Duncan Phillips summed up The Repentant St. Peter by El Greco (1600-1605) and The Repentant St. Peter by Goya (1820-1824), respectively. Mr. Phillips loved comparing the two renderings of the saint, and their current side-by-side display in the Music Room (and in this Google Art Project comparison) reflects this tradition. As a graduate intern in the education department, I’ve led some of The Phillips Collection’s weekday noon spotlight talks. Having lived in Spain for a year and a half, I was immediately drawn to the work of Goya and El Greco, who lived and worked in Madrid and Toledo nearly 200 years apart. I thought their two versions of Saint Peter would make an excellent spotlight.

When giving a gallery talk on Goya’s The Repentant St. Peter, I often start by asking visitors to imagine the work as a movie poster and create a corresponding film title. I’ve received answers ranging from Dear God, Please Forgive Me! to Please Let Me Win the Lottery! Thinking about Goya’s canvas as a movie poster transforms this initially bleak and lackluster painting into an intensely-personal rendering of a man desperate for visitors. We discuss the way the dark, nondescript background and the modern cropping—similar to a close-up film shot—add to the poignancy of the image.

Visitors often shift the conversation to compare Goya’s painting with El Greco’s representation of the same subject without my prompting. Frequently, they remark on the icy quality of the light in El Greco’s canvas as well as the more “holy” and idealized appearance of his St. Peter. Goya’s St. Peter, they usually observe, looks more like a “grubby fisherman—a guy who works with his hands.” St. Peter’s hands are a recurring point of discussion. In comparison to the elegantly elongated fingers in El Greco’s painting, visitors note the stubby, tightly-clasped fingers of Goya’s St. Peter, stepping in for a closer look when they learn that Goya returned to the painting to shorten the fingers, a process which has left a visible trace. It’s wonderful to see how, so many years after Duncan Phillips first hung these paintings side by side, they continue to inspire conversations.

Kristin Enright, Graduate Intern for Programs and Lectures

Pete and RePete

Images of two very different paintings of the same subject: El Greco, The Repentant St. Peter, 1600 - 1605 or later. Oil on canvas, 36 7/8 x 29 5/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1922; Francisco Jose de Goya, The Repentant St. Peter, circa 1820-1824. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 25 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1936.

(left) El Greco, The Repentant St. Peter, 1600 - 1605 or later. Oil on canvas, 36 7/8 x 29 5/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1922; (right) Francisco Jose de Goya, The Repentant St. Peter, circa 1820-1824. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 25 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1936.

The two Repentant Peters are back up, or as Installations Manager Bill Koberg refers to them, Pete and RePete.

Yet the two Saint Peters are hardly alike. The El Greco is elongated, influenced by the icon tradition of his native Crete and the Venetian painters; it flickers with an inner light. The Goya, painted 200 years later, is humanistic, a stocky figure as grounded as the rock he kneels against. The best description of the two Spanish paintings I ever heard was from a visitor: “They look like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza!”

So which one did the real Peter more resemble? Tradition holds that Peter was crucified upside-down during the time of Nero and buried on the Vatican Hill. Early Christians venerated the graves of their martyrs, and the apostle’s final resting place would have been well known. In the 4th century, Constantine the Great built a basilica on Vatican Hill, with the center of the apse and its altar space, with an opening, over the tomb of Saint Peter. A hundred years later, Pope Gregory the Great made the altar bigger and higher over the tomb. Then in the Renaissance, over a period of 150 years, the current church was built, again with the altar area over the tomb.

In the 20th century, Pope Pius XII ordered a full-scale scientific examination of the shrine. From about 1940 to 1957, archeologists excavated beneath the church and found the remains of a 1st century Christian necropolis. Directly beneath the altar area was a grave, with early Christian graffiti scratched into a nearby wall to indicate that it belonged to the apostle Peter. In the tomb were bones, identified as belonging to a man advanced in years, between 60 and 70 years of age, and powerful in build. Both paintings capture Saint Peter’s inner spiritual struggle, but it is Goya’s Repentant St. Peter that provides a more accurate physical depiction of the apostle.

Our humble fisherman, pleading for forgiveness, could not possibly have foreseen a splendid massive basilica, a work of art in itself, built upon the bones of the repentant Saint Peter.

Ianthe Gergel, Museum Assistant