Having denied his acquaintance with Christ on three separate occasions, St Peter began to cry bitterly after remembering that Christ had predicted his betrayal. In this painting, which offers a powerful representation of the saint’s emotional devastation, El Greco focuses on the moment when Peter learns of Christ’s death and profoundly regrets his actions. Given that the painting would originally have been displayed in a church or chapel, it offers a universal message, inviting its audience to appreciate the relationship between guilt, repentance, and confession.
Depicted half-length and close-up, St Peter dominates the composition. His deep-blue tunic complements the azure tones of the stormy sky, intensifying the melancholy of the scene, while his vibrant yellow cloak symbolizes the hope that he will meet Christ again after the Resurrection. El Greco’s clever use of light directs the attention of viewers towards the saint’s eyes, which look heavenward as they brim with tears, their watery appearance heightening the poignancy of his remorse. Behind him, the darkness of the cave emphasizes the depth of his sorrow, while the bright green colour of the ivy signifies his position as a faithful disciple. The vignette in the background shows Mary Magdalene approaching Christ’s tomb as she hears of his resurrection.
El Greco is thought to be the first artist to depict the tears of St Peter. Born in Crete, he trained in post-Byzantine painting, but travelled to Venice at the age of twenty-six, where he assimilated techniques from the Venetian Renaissance, imitating artists such as Tintoretto (1518–94). In 1570 he moved to Rome, where he entered into the circle of Alessandro Farnese (nephew of Philip II of Spain). Not achieving any marked public success in Italy, he moved to Toledo in 1577, where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life, his unique style becoming popular among its patrons. After his death, his works fell into oblivion and were only rediscovered in the nineteenth century, when they began to inspire reactions of intense appreciation as well as harsh criticism.
The painting, which is the first of several versions of the subject painted by El Greco, was acquired in 1869 through the French art dealer Benjamin Gogué (1812–71) who sold it for a mere 200 francs, affirming that it exhibited ‘all the faults and all the qualities of the grand master’. Given that this figure would be approximately £8 today, it serves as a testament not just to the relatively scant value attributed to El Greco’s works until the early twentieth century, but to the tastes of John and Joséphine Bowes, who were initially reluctant to purchase it.
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Tears of Saint Peter.
Doménikos Theotokópoulos (Heraklion, Crete, 1541 – Toledo, 1614).
Medium and Support
Oil on canvas.
127 x 108 x 9 cm. Unframed: 108 x 89.6 cm.
Marks and Inscriptions
Artist’s name inscribed in Greek letters on the middle, right-hand side of painting (front cr ‘Domenikos Theotokopoulos epoiei’).
Bequeathed by John and Joséphine Bowes, 1885.
Bought by John and Joséphine Bowes through Benjamin Gogué, Paris, from the collection of the late Count of Quinto, 1865, cat. no. 62, 200 francs.
The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, B.M.69.
Jonathan Brown, ‘El Greco and Toledo’, in El Greco of Toledo: Exhibition Organized by the Toledo Museum of Art, with Museo del Prado, National Gallery of Art, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, ed. Jonathan Brown et al. (Boston MA: Little, Brown, & Co., 1982), pp. 112–17;
José Alvarez Lopera, ed., El Greco: Identity and Transformation: Crete, Italy, Spain (Madrid: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, 1999), p. 272;
Michael Scholz-Hänsel, El Greco: Domenikos Theotokopoulos 1541–1614 (Cologne: Taschen, 2004), pp. 68–69;
Santiago Alcolea i Gil, El Greco, trans. Richard Lewis Rees (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2007), pp. 38–39;
Véronique Gerard Powell, ‘Spanish Paintings in the Bowes Museum’, in Spanish Art in County Durham, ed. Clare Baron & Andy Beresford (Bishop Auckland: Bishop Auckland Trust, The Bowes Museum, & Durham University, 2014), p. 65;
Amanda W. Dotseth, ‘Collecting Spain: From the Conde de Quinto to the Bowes Museum’, in El Greco, Goya, and a Taste for Spain: Highlights from the Bowes Museum, ed. Amanda W. Dotseth & Mark A. Roglán (Dallas TX: Meadows Museum, 2019), pp. 45–47;
Mercedes Cerón, ‘The Tears of Saint Peter’, https://vads.ac.uk/digital/collection/NIRP/id/28207/rec/2 [accessed: 13.07.22].