Peter killed, 1601
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Capella Cerasi, Rome
Oil on canvas 230 x 175cm
“He painted stillness not action. he saw art lay not in the history you told but in the human truth you showed. It was the artist’s old truth, a lesson that had to be relearnt for every time and every art. In Peter M dramatised a reality that matched the business of horse care, which was the sheer hard labour of torture and execution. Peter was worked out as intimately as Saul – no transcendental presence, no onlooker, no witness to the killing of the old man beyond yourself, and you were taken as close as anyone could get. It was another strictly private event. The executioners weren’t grimacing nude thugs like Matthew’s assassins. The three faceless labourers hoisting Peter upside down on the cross he was already nailed to – two faces turned down and away, one caught in deep shadow – were concentrating on the job in hand, absorbed in the effort of getting him in place to die. The immobility in this painting wasn’t the stillness in Saul but the momentary stasis of mechanics – Peter’s weight on the massive cross meeting the muscular effort being made to raise him. Peter himself was a well-known painter’s model from the via Margutta nearby instantly recognisable to the first people who saw the painting in Santa Maria del Popolo. The others were likely neighbours too.
Darkness was closing in here, nothing visible beyond the four figures the cross, the rope, the shovel, an abandoned greenish cloak and a small boulder like a loaf of bread that might have been the same one seen in Saul. The figures themselves, compact, busy, practised and impersonal as nurses, worked in brisk physical intimacy with the old man they were putting to death. One wrapped his arms around Peter’s legs to steady the cross, the other pulling on the rope was using his own thigh to steady the victim, the face of the kneeling shoveller with his shirt rucked up under the cross was inches from Peter’s. The image of this effort was skewed obliquely and as daringly as Saul’s, bringing the cross’s upright nearly into line with the viewer’s sight, so that Peter was seen feet first and the figures emerged from the darkness with a rounded solidity. No part of which was more rounded or more solid than the kneeling labourer’s arse projecting hugely into the viewer’s face, just above – in the near bottom corner at eye level – the filthiest sole of a bare foot M ever painted. The still point around which the visible effort pivoted was Peter’s face – M’s first rendering of a really old man, the beginning of a long imagining of age. Peter’s fading eye brought back to sharpness for a moment, not by pain or fear but by the sudden bodily disorientation, was something of the order of Pray you, undo this button. Like Lear’s this was a modern death – unmediated, unadorned, unexplained, a death without promise of transcendence, without vindication, death as nothing other than itself. It was another amazing discontinuity. Years seemed to have passed between the first Saul and the second, done weeks apart. Now Peter looked nothing like so much as M’s paintings of age and death that were years away – it was a look into the future of M’s art.” (M, Peter Robb, 1998)