Religious Art: St. Peter weeping before the Virgin

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.”


  1. I think that the feeling of grief is very Christian, from Christ at Lazurus’ tomb to today.

  2. I find nothing non-Christian, non-Mormon, or bad in feeling grief.
    I have never felt wrong in grieving at the grave of a friend or loved one.

  3. Aaron, as usual you do a fantastic job of opening my eyes and directing my attention around a great piece of art, helping me appreciate it much more.

  4. Gorgeous painting. Perhaps supra-Christian could work? In the sense that it contains elements of Christianity shared with others.

  5. observer fka eric s says:

    Her disproportionate arm-legnth is distracting, as is Peter’s uber steroid neck (like the kid on the boat in Friberg’s painting of Lehi’s fam in boat). If she stood up, her wrist would be mid thigh. I love the thoughts, though.

  6. Mommie Dearest says:

    I did my research and found that this work is located in the Louvre. Is that where you saw it or is it on loan somewhere? I’m not surprised at your response being different when you stand before the real thing in a museum. When I taught art workshops to elementary students one thing I tried to get them to understand the most was that the best reproductions (I tried to use slides or failing that, large prints) we were looking at were a very poor second to the real thing which was a thousand times better. Part of the fun of a museum visit to see which of the works is going to wring my heart out.

  7. Steve Evans says:

    Beautiful, and a splendid example of how art can carry messages where our words may fail.

  8. Good stuff. Thanks Aaron.

  9. Mommie Dearest says:

    My reading comprehension is not what it ought to be.

  10. Exactly what Steve said. Thanks.

  11. gatoraide momma says:

    I think you meant that despite it’s title and subject matter, that it is universal in its nature, not that is not Christian in nature. Instead of subtraction, addition maybe have been a better choice. Your commentary is very touching.

  12. I suggest that we view the painting as what the artist is trying to convey to us. The artist imagined how those two people might have felt as they saw Jesus being crucified. I could draw a picture of how I perceived it, but, with my lack of artistic ability, it would not convey the message that this artist was able to do. Aaron R. may think that the painting is “surprisingly unchristian”, but I think that the painter was more “christian” than is Aaron R.

  13. smb, supra-christian would have been a better choice.

    Clearly, my poorly phrased sentence led (unsurprisingly) to some confusion. My apologies for that but I appreciate the generous comments.

    Bruce, the most I am guilty of here is being a poor writer. I’d like to think I could be forgiven for that.