(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)

Martyrdom of St Peter

Fresco, 625 x 662 cm
Cappella Paolina, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican

According to tradition, Peter was at his own wish crucified upside down, either on the Janiculum hill or in a circus arena between two metae, the pair of turning-posts or conical columns set in the ground at each end of the course. Artists have used both settings, depicting Peter on the cross at the moment of being lifted by soldiers, often surrounded by onlookers, or already raised in position, with a small group of women standing by in allusion to the similar group at Christ's crucifixion. A vision of the apostle's crucifixion appeared to Peter Nolasco.

In Michelangelo's composition everything is centred in the fearful event; in triumph over pain and suffering. Solace comes from the spectacle of fortitude, confidence and will-power; the intrepid character of Saint Peter. As in the fresco of St Paul, the main protagonists fits into an ellipse placed in the centre of the cross, extended on four sides by the disposition of the figures. This device lends to the design a clarity and strength which is absent from the restless Damascus scene, because there the fallen Saul appears suspended in mid-air at the lower edge of the picture, and the accompanying figures occupy different levels of space. In the Crucifixion, on the other hand, most of the figures are vertical; only those near the centre give the impression of rotating round the martyr. Their features betray the utmost horror, especially those of the women on the lower right who tremble with terror, and several onlookers seem on the verge of madness.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 21 minutes):
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Missa Brevis (Tu es Petrus)