(b. 1541, Candia, d. 1614, Toledo)

Apostle St Peter

Oil on canvas, 97 x 77 cm
Museo de El Greco, Toledo

Peter, 'the Prince of the Apostles', was brother of Andrew and a fisherman of Galilee. He and his brother were called to be 'fishers of men'. Peter was leader of the Twelve and one of the closest to Christ. His life divides into three parts: he accompanied Christ during his ministry; after the crucifixion he led the apostles in their teaching of the gospel (the Acts); according to several early accounts, he went to Rome where he established the first Christian community and was crucified by Nero in A.D. 64.

Apostle Peter in Art

His appearance has remained remarkably constant in art and he is the most immediately recognizable of the apostles. He is an old but vigorous man, with short grey curly hair, balding or tonsured, and a short, usually curly beard, and with broad, rustic features. He commonly wears a yellow (gold) cloak over a blue, or sometimes green, tunic. His special attribute is a key, or keys: 'I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven'. (Matt. 16:19). A gold and a silver (or iron) key symbolize respectively the gates of heaven and hell, or the power to give absolution and to excommunicate. Other attributes are an upturned cross (his form of martyrdom), a crozier with triple transverses (papal), a book (the gospel), a cock (his denial) and more rarely a ship or a fish, symbols of the Church and of Christianity respectively, also of Peter's occupation.

His inscription, from the Apostles' Creed, is 'Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, creatorem coeli et terrae.' Devotional images are of three kinds: (1) Grouped with other apostles, he stands in first place, next to Christ. (2) With Paul, the pair represent the Jewish and gentile elements of the Church. (3) He wears papal vestments and tiara, as first bishop of Rome, or as a symbol of the papacy in Counter-Reformation art. Narrative scenes may be divided into three periods: (a) His participation in Christ's ministry. (b) The apostolic ministry, as told in the Acts. (c) The Roman legends.