The Wallace Collection

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Peter Paul Rubens, Christ’s Charge to Peter (P93)
Treasure of the Month - July 2011

Peter Paul Rubens, Christ’s Charge to Peter (P93)

The painting illustrates two separate stories in the New Testament which establish a special position for St Peter among the Apostles. In the Gospel of St Matthew, Christ charges St Peter with the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven: “whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosened in heaven”. In the Gospel of St John, Christ after his death appears to the Apostles and tells Peter to ‘feed his sheep’. These biblical passages have played a key role ever since, allowing the Papacy to claim to lead Christianity. Rubens combined two distinct moments: Christ gives the keys to Peter while pointing at two sheep in the lower right-hand corner of the painting.  According to the biblical accounts, the first episode happened during Jesus’s lifetime and only the second after his death, but Rubens shows Christ with the wounds inflicted on him on the cross. While Christ and St Peter are the obvious protagonists of the scene, the other Apostles cannot be identified.

Rubens painted the work for Nicholas Damant (c. 1531-1616), an advisor to the Austrian governors of the Southern Netherlands, Archdukes Albert and Isabella. The painting originally decorated his tomb in the church of St Gudule in Brussels. Its style seems to indicate that Damant commissioned the painting before his death. He might have chosen the subject to illustrate his allegiance to the Catholic rulers of the Southern Netherlands, but also because his father Peter was buried close by. The painting is one of the best examples for the obvious and direct classicism in Rubens’s works after his return from Italy where he had spent the years between 1600 and 1608. Christ’s Charge to Peter shows Rubens’s obvious interest in the volume and presence of antique figures. Their monumentality is heightened by the dense arrangement of half-length figures. The combination of the same two separate biblical scenes goes back to Raphael’s cartoons for the Sistine Chapel (Royal Collection, on long-term loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum), which provided a model for Rubens. Contemporaries also saw the painting as an example for Rubens’s study of light effects: a contemporary drawing after the painting from Rubens’s immediate circle shows the lighting of the individual figures as different combinations of candle and daylight. Rubens referred back to dramatically lit half-figure scenes by Caravaggio, but reduced the latter’s sharp contrasts in lighting. He had studied Caravaggio’s works in Italy and was also instrumental in bringing an altarpiece by the Italian painter to Antwerp.

Sir Joshua Reynolds saw the painting in 1781 while it was still in Brussels: “The characters heavy, without grace or dignity; the handling on a close examination appears tame even to the suspicion of its being a copy; the colouring is remarkably fresh.” In 1788, he quoted it in his fourteenth Discourse as an example for “the difficulty of uniting solidity with lightness of manner”. Reynolds was looking for typical late works by Rubens and saw Christ’s Charge to Peter as problematic. Today, we can more easily appreciate different facets of Rubens’s work and can see the painting as one of the most telling examples of his emulation of both Raphael and antiquity.

Gallery Talks
Friday 15 July (with Christoph Vogtherr) and Tuesday 26 July at 1pm.

Further Reading

  • David Freedberg, Rubens. The Life of Christ after the Passion (Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, 7), London/Oxford 1984, pp. 94-99, no. 24.
  • John Ingamells, The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Pictures IV: Dutch and Flemish, London 1992, pp. 317-320.