Today's Gospel in Art - Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

  • Patrick van der Vorst

St Peter and St Paul, by El Greco 1590 © Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

St Peter and St Paul, by El Greco 1590 © Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

Gospel of 28th June 2020 - Matthew 16:13-19

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi he put this question to his disciples, 'Who do people say the Son of Man is?' And they said, 'Some say he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.' 'But you,' he said 'who do you say I am?' Then Simon Peter spoke up, 'You are the Christ,' he said 'the Son of the living God.' Jesus replied, 'Simon son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. So I now say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.'

Reflection on the Painting

I have never been a great fan of El Greco's work but I always find myself drawn to it. The restricted colour palette, the simple compositions, the sketchy, hastily painted brushstrokes are not what one expects from a late-16th-century painter - and therein lies his genius. His paintings feel very 'contemporary' by 21st-century standards, but yet his style remains a very particular one, that one likes or not.

El Greco completed our painting of Saint Peter (holding the keys) and Saint Paul (holding a sword), who we celebrate today, around 1590 in Toledo, Spain. There is a sense of a halo around the heads of the saints, produced by providing a blue opening in the cloud-filled background. The placement of the hands of the two saints, crossed without actually touching, symbolises a possible disagreement between the two on certain matters they discussed. Peter, on the left, is pointing towards Paul, suggesting a sign of surrender in the disagreement. It probably refers to the disagreement Paul and Peter had at the Council of Jerusalem held in 50 AD. It was decreed that gentile (non Jewish) Christians did not have to observe the Mosaic Law of the Jews, an argument won by Saint Paul.

Today is a solemnity, a feast day of the highest rank, where we celebrate both their martyrdom and their tireless efforts to get the early Church established. St Augustine of Hippo in the 4th century states: "Both apostles share the same feast day, for these two were one; and even though they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so, we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles' blood."


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Tags: Christian Art Today, Patrick van der Vorst, El Greco

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