Giovanni Franceso (Guercino) Barbieri (1591-1666), ‘Saint Peter weeping before the Virgin’, oil on canvas, 1647.
Having previously seen a print of this painting, I was surprised at my immediate response to the original when I visited the Louvre earlier this year. I have not experienced real grief in my life and as I stood before this masterpiece there was an unexpected sense that this image articulated something that I knew I would one day have to feel. It was almost prophetic but also, in one sense, surprisingly un-Christian.
Aside from the quite tangible absence of hope, this painting is un-Christian because it is so very human. It could speak to us regardless of whether we know who these two characters are. The weathered face of Peter and his slightly ragged clothing remind us of Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas. Mary is also dishevelled and unkempt. The humanity of their grief is quite arresting.
Regarding the painting itself, certainly this focus on light and colour is typical of Baroque-period paintings. The sharp contrast between light and shade bring harshness to the scene; more than that it contributes to the great distance between the two figures. This distance is juxtaposed against an apparent unity represented through the reflective colours of their clothing.
Further, this painting’s glimpse of the private grief of Mary and Peter stands contrary to the public weeping at the foot of the cross so common in Renaissance art. One wonders when this painting is situated in the narrative: was it prior to or after the resurrection? Our faith in, even our knowledge of, the resurrection does negate the grief of the present loss.
Finally, in thinking about this painting my mind kept reflecting upon something Sunny Smart said. It provides a wonderful exegesis of my own feelings about this painting:
“When my dad died I remember so well the wish that I could be among people, but not really present. I wanted to be a part of the normalcy of others’ lives, yet didn’t possess the strength to participate myself. I wanted them to move around me, not toward me. I wished that they would go on as if I wasn’t there, yet allow me to be there, observing and soaking in the stream of life moving forward. Sometimes mere presence is more than enough to bridge the chasm where words fall short.”