(b. 1450, Citta della Pieve, d. 1523, Perugia)

Christ Handing the Keys to St Peter

Fresco, 335 x 550 cm
Cappella Sistina, Vatican

The fresco is from the cycle of the life of Christ in the Sistine Chapel, it is located in the fifth compartment on the north wall.

Likely in charge of the entire project of the fresco decoration on the walls of the Sistine Chapel, Pietro Perugino retained for himself not only representations on the altar wall (which eventually were replaced by Michelangelo's Last Judgment) but also other significant scenes, such as Christ Handing the Keys to St Peter, a most fitting subject for Pope Sixtus' chapel. The fresco is located in the fifth compartment on the north wall.

Among his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel the Christ Handing the Keys to St Peter is stylistically the most instructive. The main figures are organized in a frieze in two tightly compressed rows close to the surface of the picture and well below the horizon. The principal group, showing Christ handing the gold and silver keys to the kneeling St Peter, is surrounded by the other Apostles, including Judas (fifth figure to the left of Christ), all with halos, together with portraits of contemporaries, including one said to be a self-portrait (fifth from the right edge). The flat, open piazza is divided by coloured stones into large foreshortened rectangles, although they are not used in defining the spatial organization. Nor is the relationship between the figures and the felicitous invention of the porticoed Temple of Salomon that dominates the picture effectively resolved. The triumphal arches at the extremities appear as superfluous antiquarian references, suitable for a Roman audience. Scattered in the middle distance are two secondary scenes from the life of Christ, including the Tribute Money on the left and the Stoning of Christ on the right.

The style of the figures is dependent upon Verrocchio. The active drapery, with its massive complexity, and the figures, particularly several apostles, including St John the Evangelist, with beautiful features, long flowing hair, elegant demeanour, and refinement recall St Thomas from Verrocchio's bronze group on Orsanmichele. The poses of the actors fall into a small number of basic attitudes that are consistently repeated, usually in reverse from one side to the other, signifying the use of the same cartoon. They are graceful and elegant figures who tend to stand firmly on the earth. Their heads are smallish in proportion to the rest of their bodies, and their features are delicately distilled with considerable attention to minor detail.

The octagonal temple with its ample porches that dominates the central axis must have had behind it a project created by an architect, but Perugino's treatment is like the rendering of a wooden model, painted with exactitude. The building with its arches serves as a backdrop in front of which the action unfolds. Perugino has made a significant contribution in rendering the landscape. The sense of an infinite world that stretches across the horizon is stronger than in almost any other work of his contemporaries, and the feathery trees against the cloud-filled sky with the bluish hills in the distance represent a solution that later painters would find instructive, especially Raphael.