With his Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei, the Holy Father, now emeritus, had proclaimed a Year of Faith (October 11, 2012-November 24, 2013) to commemorate the Second Vatican Council’s opening 50 years ago and the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 20 years ago. Only five days before Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone inaugurated, as part of these anniversaries’ celebrations, the exhibition entitled “St. Peter’s Journey” in Castel Sant’Angelo. Curated by Don Alessio Geretti, appointed by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, its some 40 works of art, several of which have never traveled before, are on display until May 1. They illustrate the meaning of faith; cover the history of Christianity from the 4th to the 20th century; and tell the story of Peter’s vocation, his vacillating response, and his destiny. They are divided into ten sections: Pilgrims on Peter’s Footsteps, Encounter, Amazement, Resistance, Crisis and Rebirth, Surrender to God, Similarity Between the Lord and His Disciple, Mission, Fraternity and a second Surrender to God. They include paintings by Marco Baisaiti, Eugène Burnand, Vitale da Bologna, Luca Giordano, Guercino, Giorgio Vasari, and Lorenzo Veneziano on loan from museums and private collections in Belgium, England, France, Germany, Russia, Spain, Switzerland and the United States, as well as Italy and Vatican City.
“When it’s a question of communicating the loftiest truths,” explained Bertone at the inauguration, “it’s necessary that they make a mark, with the best possible repertoire of means, materials, gestures, and words that we have at our disposal. The Church has always encouraged love for art,” he stressed, reaffirming that “the human and spiritual adventure of Simon Peter reminds us that faith isn’t the result of a rational process, nor merely some heritage that’s been passed down to us, even though it was won with blood. Faith is a gift of God which, if it’s lived to the full, doesn’t leave man at the mercy of mediocrity… Christian faith isn’t a cold and arrogant possession of truths to be grasped. Rather, it’s won over by the revelation that God is the love on which we may depend, in spite of such reasons as effort, anxiety, and concern which can sometimes overwhelm us.”
Oddly, “Peter’s Journey” begins with the result of Peter’s story; its single painting by Vitale da Bologna (c. 1350), St. Peter Blesses a Pilgrim, emphasizes the apostle’s post-mortem importance. This first section’s (“Pilgrims in Peter’s Footsteps”) wall panel explains that the exhibition’s “objective is to give a voice to the mission for which these works were thought and willed: to eliminate the distance of time and space that separates us from the events documented in the Gospels, to make us their contemporaries. The faithful and the faithless alike, following in the footsteps of Peter’s adventure, will be able to perceive the true nature of faith, what a man can do for faith and what faith can do for a man.” In fact, the works of art in “St. Peter’s Journey” illustrate the evolution of Peter’s faith and not his every deed. Furthermore, several important testimonies, even some from Rome, are missing from the exhibition because not transportable: the Vatican necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica, where this saint and first Pope is buried and to which pilgrims flocked almost immediately and still do; Perugino’s fresco of The Delivery of the Keys in the Sistine Chapel; and Caravaggio’s The Crucifixion of St. Peter in Santa Maria del Popolo.
This first wall panel continues with a short biography of Jesus’ favorite apostle. We learn that Peter, “a man of impulsive character, impetuous, certainly generous,” was more or less the same age as Jesus; was a native of Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee’s eastern shore; his father John was a fisherman and his brother and fellow-apostle was named Andrew; and that, before his encounter with Jesus, who according to Matthew 16:18 renamed him Peter (“You are Peter; on this rock I will build my Church”), Peter’s name had been Simon, which in Hebrew (shema) means “he who listens, the disciple.” Thus, “in his first name resided his destiny.”
The works of art in Encounter, paintings and woodcarvings, depict the beginning of Peter’s journey: his second encounter with Jesus: the miracle of the fish (Luke 5:4-9), for, as the wall panel explains: “Faith isn’t a conviction born of reason; it’s an answer to an event. In the game between man and God, God makes the first move, making his presence known in different ways. Faith thus consists first of all in a personal encounter. Faith is a highly dramatic experience because it forces one to continuously measure oneself against one’s limits and not be afraid.”
The paintings in Amazement use light to show the effect on Peter of the miracles Jesus performed in his company soon after their first two “encounters”: the 15th-century icon The Transfiguration on loan from Novgorod; Jan Bruegel the Elder’s Little Boat in the Storm (1596) (Matthew 14:28-30) on loan from Madrid’s Thyssen Bornemisza Museum; Mattia Preti’s St. Peter Finds the Money Tribute in the Fish’s Mouth (1645) on loan from Rome’s Palazzo Corsini (some two centuries before Masaccio and Masolino had masterfully rendered this episode in their frescoes in Florence’s Brancacci Chapel), and Vasily Polenov’s Jesus Raising the Daughter of Jairus (1871) on loan from the St. Petersburg’s Academy of Fine Arts. All these above-mentioned works try to capture the moments when Peter’s admiration and awe of Jesus start to grow, while those in Resistance show the apostle’s struggle to believe and the erosion of his self-confidence. For no other apostle resists faith like Peter, and no other apostle reveals the same humanity and the same weaknesses.
Crisis and Rebirth is the heart, the pivot of the exhibition, when a repentant Peter (two paintings here, one by Guercino, show him weeping) discovers that, even after his threefold betrayal of Jesus, the culmination of faith is the discovery of God’s mercy. In the Swiss painter Eugène Burnand’s dramatic canvas Peter and John Run to the Sepulcher at Dawn on the Morning of the Resurrection (1898), on loan from the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, the two shocked and confused apostles, pushing against an invisible force, seem finally to understand their mission: to share their beliefs with others. Luke 24:34 records the Lord’s first apparition to Peter and John 21 his third, which cements their love that not even Peter’s three denials and later prison bars are able to destroy.
In short, after the Lord’s self-sacrifice and resurrection, Peter surrenders his life to God. Thus, in Surrender to God we finally see Peter’s faith in action. He’s climbed aboard the barque and starts guiding the Church. “In the past centuries,” the wall panel tells us, “Christian iconography often evoked the events of Peter’s life. He appears to believers in times of hardship and despair—as in the case of his Visit to St. Agnes in Prison (1614) by Simon Vouet—to inspire them with the power of perseverance; faith, indeed, is essentially trusteeship and perseverance, but not in the sense of a heroic, human effort of constancy and resistance to the enemy. It’s rather a gift of perseverance; the surprise of an energy that comes from above through prayer. When everything seems to make us lower our gaze with sadness, faith teaches us to raise it and direct it to God, in whose hands lie the history of the universe and our personal story.”
Fraternity explains that faith, after the resurrection of Jesus, became an experience of fraternity for Peter and the early Christians. Yes, believing is a personal act, but realized and manifested as openness towards others. Thus, communion, the bond of unity, and solidarity with the poor and suffering, are true faith. Moreover, death doesn’t interrupt the bond of communion that faith generates. This unity of faith, this fraternity, this fellowship is often depicted showing the apostles Peter and Paul together as in the several Russian icons on loan from Moscow and Novgorod. The “new” founders of the “new” Rome are brothers, even though the same woman did not give birth to them.
In Mission we learn that “Peter traveled extensively to spread the Gospel, starting in Judea and Samaria. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter’s remembered not only in Jerusalem, Lydda, Joppa, and Caesarea. In his First Letter Peter addresses the faithful scattered through Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, a sign that he probably knew the inhabitants.” Thanks to a priest named Gaius, as Eusebius of Caesarea reported, we know that Peter arrived in Rome, where he ended his earthly mission and his personal story of faith. It’s traditionally believed that in 64 AD he was crucified—upside down, at his own request, since he saw himself unworthy of being crucified in the same way as Jesus. The site of his martyrdom is off-limits today, past the entrance under St. Peter’s Basilica’s clock near the Vatican’s Teutonic Cemetery. Yet for the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics he lives on.