CARRACCI, Annibale
(b. 1560, Bologna, d. 1609, Roma)

Domine quo vadis?

Oil on panel, 77,4 x 56,3 cm
National Gallery, London

This tale from the life of St Peter is recorded in the collection of legends written down by Jacobus a Voragine in the 13th century. It tells how the apostle, having triumphed over Simon Magus, was persuaded by the Christians of Rome to leave town. Jacobus a Voragine relates how Peter encountered Christ on the Appian way and asked "Quo vadis domine" (Whither goest thou, master?), to which Christ replied "To Rome, to be crucified anew."

This apocryphal legend is in fact the beginning of Peter's own martyrdom. This would certainly explain the vigorous movements in Carracci's painting, with the apostle recoiling in terror. It is not the unexpected encounter with the risen Christ that has taken the apostle aback, but his awareness of his own human frailty. Annibale's magnificent rhetoric reminds the spectator of Christ's call to turn back.

The viewer is on the Appian Way with Peter, or rather, is Peter meeting Christ. The foot of the cross protrudes from the panel, Christ's hand points outwards, and the shadows he casts attest to his corporeality as he strides toward us. While Peter's left foot remained in place, the rest of the figure was altered during painting, drawn back to the right edge of the panel in an attitude half-way between terror and obeisance, more deeply felt than his earlier pose but also making room for our implied presence. Firm contours delimit Christ's athletic bo,dy, yet its internal modelling is subtly lifelike, rippling with the movement of muscles and the angle at which surfaces catch the light. It is obvious that this figure was based on a live model, for his hands and lower legs are more sunburnt than his torso and thighs, although the face he turns to Peter is an idealised mask of pathos under the crown of thorns. Despite the dual sources of light from the background and in the foreground, the same sun seems to warm sky, trees, fields and Roman temples, and the crimson, white, gold and blue draperies, the metal keys, the youthful and the aged flesh and the chestnut and grizzled hair of the two wayfarers at the crossroads between time and eternity.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.