A short story by Sandro F. Piedrahita
“Your sons and your daughters
shall prophesy, your young men
shall see visions, your old men
shall dream dreams…”
Acts of the Apostles, 2:17
Peter’s feet and hands are nailed to the half-raised cross, his body bloodied and crucified upside down, unlike his Christ. One of the workmen, his face shielded like that of the others, is pulling a thick rope at the top of the cross, where Peter’s feet are secured. Another is beneath the cross, trying with all his might to lift it so that the stake might sink into the ground. The third has both hands below the wood attached to the apostle’s feet. On the ground, a shovel vaguely reflects light as a knife would. And in front of the cross is a rock.
Caravaggio looks at his painting and thinks it is a masterpiece.
Caravaggio has spent all morning and afternoon adding the last details to the painting, accompanied by his assistant Cecco, who is quickly learning. Caravaggio has multi-colored paint all over his workclothes, on his hands and arms, even on his curly black hair and his swarthy face. Caravaggio never prepares his paintings based on drawings but paints directly in color and often doesn’t know how he will complete a piece until the very end.
The last thing he painted in his piece on Peter was the rock at the foot of the inverted cross. He wanted it to be perfect. He has always told his assistant that even the most minute detail in a painting must be masterful. He learned to paint as an adolescent in Milan, helping Simone Peterzano by adding minor details to his master’s works – an apple, a flower, the blond locks of an angel – and he has never forgotten that even the most insignificant aspect of a painting is important.
It was also in Milan that he learned to brawl. Caravaggio has always been ill-tempered, ready at any moment to use his fists to resolve an argument, which has often been a subject of his confessions. Once he threw a plate of artichokes at the face of a waiter merely because the poor man refused to tell him whether they were cooked in oil or butter.
The piece on Peter does what Caravaggio attempts to do in all of his paintings: it encapsulates a whole life in a single scene, the one moment when a life is riven asunder between the before and the after. Every person’s life must have a tipping point – the irrevocable instant when an existential decision is made, the fork in the road that cannot be reversed. Yet it is also true, Caravaggio thinks, that in certain lives there is a progression of tipping points, one choice leading to another, inexorably, until the final choice is made from which there is no return.
Earlier, in painting Saint Paul on the way to Damascus, Caravaggio had depicted the tipping point in the life of Saul of Tarsus, the moment when he was blinded, the moment that rendered asunder the before and the after. The persecutor of Christians in an instant became Christ’s greatest apostle. Peter’s life, by contrast, was more of a progression of tipping points, although Caravaggio thinks it most appropriate to depict him at the moment when he was crucified.
Before that moment, there had always been the possibility of retraction, of going back, of somehow refusing his mission. And it is true that Peter had at first decided to escape from Rome to avoid his crucifixion. But as he was fleeing, the Christ had appeared to him at the Appian Gate and told him not to do so, pleading that Peter remain with his flock. Once Peter opted to return, the die had already in some way been cast. He had decided not to abandon his sheep in Rome or to forfeit his episcopate for his own safety.
But it was on the cross that he made his ultimate decision. Would he cringe in fear? Would he second-guess his choice? Would he accept his killing at the hands of Nero with cowardice or courage? That’s why Caravaggio chose to depict Peter when he was first nailed to his cross, not a second before and not a second after.
Caravaggio also likes to think that his paintings tell a story like written works do. As with any narrative, as in the Bible itself, the protagonist's true character is often revealed by his reaction to extreme temptation in a single dramatic scene. Of course, the story of Peter began long before his crucifixion, although it was obviously impossible to represent it in a single work of art. Nevertheless, Caravaggio tells his 17-year-old apprentice that The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, if analyzed closely, depicts more than one event – indeed, it captures Peter’s entire life.
Cecco listens to his master in rapt attention as they speak in his large atelier with its high-sloped ceilings. Cecco knows that Caravaggio loves him like a son, even though the great painter is only thirty years old, but he also knows that Caravaggio is a tough taskmaster. Caravaggio does not allow imperfections in Cecco’s work and was furious when he saw Cecco’s initial depiction of the shovel in the painting of the crucified Peter. For a moment, Cecco thought that his master was about to strike him. Caravaggio had assigned him a minor detail in the piece, and Cecco had not completed it to his master’s satisfaction.
But soon Caravaggio’s anger dissipated, and he showed his apprentice how to render the details of the shovel with artistry. On a large canvas, Caravaggio usually began the work with large brushes and larger brush strokes, but as the work got closer to completion, he used smaller brushes. Caravaggio patiently showed his pupil how to paint the shovel with a small brush, telling him that the most important detail was the glint of light reflecting upon it. The next time Caravaggio’s saw Cecco’s work, he was satisfied, smiled broadly, and told his young apprentice that it approached perfection. Cecco had learned from his master and had ably depicted the shovel in chiaroscuro.
For the cognoscenti, it wouldn’t be difficult to see that although Peter is here portrayed as an old man, he is still well-muscled, reflecting a man strong in his faith. That would remind them that Peter’s faith had developed like a muscle, growing in strength as he was tested again and again, even if he sometimes failed at the most critical moments – when he was walking on the water, for example, or when he denied the Christ three times before the cock crowed. Caravaggio knows that a man’s conscience can wither away like a muscle if ignored and fortified if followed in the most challenging of moments.
And the artist also knows that those who knew Peter’s story would not miss the allusion to the rock Caravaggio has painted at the feet of Peter’s inverted cross. It tells the story of how, long before Peter’s crucifixion, Jesus had told him he was the rock upon which He would build His Church.
And yet Caravaggio isn’t fully satisfied. The painting doesn’t have any symbols to represent Peter’s doubts, especially those that assaulted him after the crucifixion of the Christ. Perhaps he should have included a rooster, just as certain fourth-century sarcophagi had done, to remind the onlookers of Peter’s denial of Jesus. Or perhaps a fishing rod or a boat, to symbolize Peter’s role as a fisher of men.
But then Caravaggio thinks again. As he was hanging on his cross for hours, dying a slow and grueling death, Peter must have been thinking about the moment when he learned of his Master’s crucifixion and of everything that had happened thereafter. So in a way, by depicting Peter’s face as he was crucified, Caravaggio had represented him pondering the Passion of the Christ and the miraculous events that followed. In a great work of art, Caravaggio believes, everything must be understated.
“It’s a masterpiece,” he says to Cecco, “so much better than the depiction of Peter’s crucifixion by Michelangelo. After all, Michelangelo’s fresco is crowded with too many figures, which detracts from the centrality of Peter in the work. In my piece, the light shines fully on the crucified apostle. Nothing distracts the viewer from the brutality of the crucifixion. Peter’s face, bathed in the light of God Himself, is the only one you can see in the massive painting. And while in Michelangelo’s fresco Saint Peter looks toward the viewer, in my painting he is looking toward God.”
“What do you mean?” Cecco asks.
“Don’t you realize that I have painted him so that his eyes are on the chapel altar once it is placed in the Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo? Peter is resolute, not fearful, in his final moment, and he is already looking forward to his reunion with Christ.”
“So you think your work is comparable to that of the great Michelangelo?” Cecco asks.
“I’ve surpassed him. I tell you, I’ve surpassed him. Titian too.”
Cecco laughs at Caravaggio’s vanity, knowing that his master’s biggest flaw, among many others, is his preternatural pride.
Peter is hanging on his cross, his head pointed downward, trying to remember how his Master suffered a similar ordeal in order to give himself courage. The sores on his back from the flogging of the previous night – more than a hundred lashes as he was being pressed to disavow his faith – are bleeding profusely as they rub against the wood and smarting like bright lightning. He feels great pain at his wrists and his feet, all his limbs immobilized and in a strange contracture. It becomes harder and harder to breathe. The weight of his body, pulled by gravity, makes the act of breathing almost impossible. It isn’t so difficult for Peter to breathe in, but it is excruciating to get the air out of his lungs as his body leans forward, hanging by the arms, the pressure mounting against his chest.
But it is hanging upside down that leads to the greatest desperation. He knows the blood is flowing down into his head. He feels great dizziness and lightheadedness and thinks that he is about to go mad. During the first few hours, it hadn’t bothered him greatly, but with the passage of time, it has become sheer torture, interrupting his thoughts, making him see strange visions. He suspects that the effect on his brain of hanging upside down will lead to his death more quickly than will the failure of his lungs and heart. At some point, the weight on the ligaments and muscles of his arms is so great that they are pulled out of their sockets.
Throughout the ordeal, he lapses in and out of consciousness, which is a sort of unexpected relief. During these moments, he has visions of his past, of what he went through after the Christ Himself was crucified: about Jesus’s promises, about the Lord’s prediction that he, too, would be crucified. And he remembers the sea – the Sea of Galilee – where he encountered many wonders when he was the least of fishermen.
On the day when Peter learned of the Christ’s crucifixion, Peter was deathly afraid, and at the same time, he felt a limitless sorrow. The night enveloped Jerusalem in darkness black as death, and the Messiah was dead. Carousers still filled the streets, drinking and laughing, as if they had just witnessed a scene of gladiators and not an unimaginable crime.
Dead. Dead. His Master was dead, and Peter could not grapple with the enormity of that fact. His anguish was a stone that weighed not only on his spirit, but also on his gut, an enormous boulder pressing against his chest and asphyxiating his lungs as if Peter himself was the one who had been crucified. Peter, given the name of rock by the Christ, was suddenly crushed by the great stone of despair.
Dead. Peter had not had the courage to witness his Master’s torture and crucifixion, afraid he would himself be killed. Thrice he had denied Him, saying “I do not know the man,” and now He was dead, no longer in the world. Peter muttered a prayer under his breath, hoping the wind would take the words to his Master’s ear. But there was only silence and the stillness of the night. His Master was dead, like a rose clipped before blooming, like the saddest insect crushed by the foot of a centurion as the soldier walked across the grass.
Peter comes back to consciousness as he hangs from his inverted cross. He looks out with great difficulty at Nero’s Circus Maximus. Being upside down, it is very difficult for him to see things with much clarity. Still, as he adjusts his vision, he can vaguely distinguish all the other crosses, probably more than a hundred of them, where all the other Christians are being killed, all the sheep that he had been unable to save. The stands are full of Romans watching the gruesome spectacle as if it were an athletic match: men, women, children, entire families intent on seeing the death of the men and women they so despise, the besotted Christians who have been accused of burning down the city of Rome. But Peter soon lapses back into unconsciousness.
Peter had run into John, the apostle Jesus loved, shortly after the Master’s crucifixion. John had been more courageous, had accompanied Mary at the foot of the Cross as the Messiah exhaled His last breath. Alone among the apostles, John had not avoided the scene in terror. John had helped bring the dead body, pale and bloodied, from the tree where His execution had transpired. A dead body just like any other, lifeless, still, unbothered, and now laid securely in a sepulcher guarded by Mary Magdalene and the other women.
“Who am I?” the Christ had asked Peter, and he had responded, “You are the Son of the Living God, you are the Messiah.”
But now He was in a tomb, just like any other mortal being. Peter wept; he could not cease weeping, despairing because he had not been with the man in His moment of greatest tribulation.
“Why have you fallen asleep in my moment of suffering?” the Messiah had rebuked him in the Garden of Gethsemane. And now Peter had done something infinitely worse. He had not been with his Master as His feet and hands were pierced with nails, as His head was crowned by a crown of thorns, as He died – unjustly! – like an ordinary human. Peter remembered the words of Jesus on the previous night: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” But Peter had given small heed to the words of his Master and had allowed himself to be tempted to despair.
Peter could not fathom the man’s death. He had imagined a Messiah who would rule over the Jews, an earthly king, a respected ruler more powerful than an Egyptian pharaoh. And yet His holocaust had been akin to that of a lamb, the merest animal, offended and insulted, spat upon by the onlookers. How could such a death be that of the promised Messiah predicted by the Holy Scriptures?
Peter asked for another drink at the tavern. He hoped that no one would recognize him in the darkness, covering his head with a cowl, yet he still felt a fear that made him shiver. Surely he didn’t want to die like his Master. Why, oh why didn’t Jesus allow him to smite the men who had apprehended Him? A righteous Messiah would have defended His throne, not allowed Himself to be captured so easily by His enemies. So Peter drank and drank until his body was weary with wine, and in the darkness, he made his way to the home he shared with the other apostles, burdened by monstrous anxiety and sadness as vast as the Sea of Galilee.
Matthew the tax collector opened the door. “Peace to you,” he said to Peter, and Peter responded, “Peace.” All the apostles were congregated in the room where Jesus had administered the Last Supper to them earlier in the week, and Jesus’ mother was sleeping in an upstairs bedroom, exhausted by the day’s events. All the apostles were somber, their faces darkened by pain, both physical and spiritual, except John, the apostle Jesus loved. When he saw Peter, he hugged him and, noticing Peter’s ashen face, asked him why he was so distraught.
“Jesus has died,” Peter answered. “How do you want me to feel?”
“But He will come back,” replied John.
“Didn’t you yourself seal his cadaver in a tomb?” Peter inquired. “Didn’t you place a rock in front of His sepulcher? How can you tell me not to be struck by grief?”
“You’re forgetting something,” said John. “Do you forget that the Master told you that He would suffer, be killed, and rise again? Do you forget that He warned us about His death time and time again?”
“How can I forget?” Peter answered. “I had never seen Him respond as furiously as when I objected to the prediction of His death. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ He cried out at me. ‘You don’t have in mind the things of God but the things of men.’”
“Then why are you lapsing into despair, my brother? Jesus is still with us in spirit. And He will return in body as well, to establish His kingdom. Have you never understood His message? He said it quite plainly: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified, and on the third day be raised again.’”
“I don’t know,” Peter answered. “I wish I had your faith. But I am bedeviled by doubt. What purpose would it serve for Him to be slaughtered like an animal? What benefit derived from such an inglorious death? Why would the nails go through His hands into the wood? The only thing it’s done is to perplex all His followers. And I must confess to you that I am among the perplexed.”
Peter is awakened by his own pain and his inability to breathe easily. Sleeping is such a relief that he prays only for that. From his inverted position, Peter can vaguely see that Nero has begun the rest of his show, pitting the strongest Christian soldiers against the beasts: lions, tigers, and python snakes. One brave Christian prisoner, armed with only a kitchen knife and a wooden lance, is facing a black panther. Upside down, it is difficult for Peter to understand what is happening. But upon hearing the tumult among the crowds, the cheers, and the backslaps, Peter is certain that the panther has vanquished its prey. And Peter lapses back into unconsciousness, a vision of the sea, dreams within dreams. Surely, if he doesn’t sleep, the veins of his brain will soon explode.
The day after the crucifixion of Jesus, Peter decided to go out to sea early in the morning, before it was light. Back to the Sea of Galilee, the sea he loved, where he could be caressed by the breeze, lulled by the waves, enchanted by the sun’s luminous reflection on the water. He knew that it was the Sabbath, and that he should not fish on the Sabbath, but he had breached that law before, and Jesus had not castigated him for it. So he let the sail float around the mast and let the wind take him wherever it wanted. And for an instant, he forgot his pain, his deep sense of loss. His eyes were suddenly undefeated. Hadn’t he walked on this very water on the orders of the Messiah? Wasn’t it on the sea that Jesus had often told him not to be afraid? Peter looked out at the blue immensity before him and at the pelicans, lonely fishermen just like him, swooping down swiftly from the sky to catch fish.
Peter had always struggled between faith and doubt. Once, while he and the other disciples were rowing on the water, a great wave rocked their boat, and they were afraid that it would capsize. They feared they would all drown, swallowed by the hunger of the sea. They turned their eyes to heaven and said a silent prayer to YHWH. In the distance, beyond the mounting waves, they vaguely distinguished a human figure apparently walking on the water. Peter mistook it for an otherworldly apparition and trembled with great fright.
“It’s some sort of ghost,” he told his brother. “A specter who portends no good.”
Suddenly they heard a voice as the figure approached them. “Take courage. I am! Do not be afraid.” The figure, dressed in light, said this as if, by virtue of His very existence, men should never fear.
They recognized it as the voice of Jesus, but Peter doubted. It was neither the first nor the last time that Jesus would tell Peter not to be afraid when he braved the Sea of Galilee.
“Lord, if it is you, then prove it,” Peter said, still unbelieving. “Tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” the figure said.
And Peter started to walk on the water, hesitatingly placing one sandal in front of the other. The sea felt as solid as concrete, as solid as hardened bricks, and Peter quickened his pace. It was as if he were striding on terra firma and not on the bottomless surf of the sea. He was amazed by his supernatural feat and felt a frisson of recognition: truly, the man who was calling him was the Son of God! Peter continued to march toward the luminescent figure, growing in confidence at each step, feeling the breeze but not the waves, more and more certain that he would not plunge into the liquid beneath his feet. He began to saunter more quickly, almost running toward his Master, delighted by the steadiness of his gait.
But then Peter was afraid, lost his nerve, doubted the miracle he was experiencing, and started to sink into the water. Surely, what he was doing was impossible! No one could walk on water, certainly not an ordinary mortal like him. It must all be an illusion, a dream, a fantasy! He felt his body slowly enter into the sea, first his feet, then his legs up to the knee, then felt the water reach his waist. He was sure that he would drown that very instant despite the admonition of his Master, and in his bottomless despair, he cried out for help. By then, only his desperate face was above the surface of the sea, and suddenly he felt the buffeting waves and heard the roar of the omnivorous water.
“Lord, save me!” he exclaimed, doubting he would be saved.
Immediately, the Lord reached out, caught him, and helped him walk back to his skiff, one step ahead of the other.
“You of little faith,” He said, shaking his head as Peter looked at Him with fear still painted on his face. “Why do you doubt? Haven’t I repeatedly told you not to be afraid?”
The truth is, Peter always alternated between faith and doubt, certainty and indecision, although on the sea, he also always felt the presence of God. It was the one place where his faith was restored, peering at the vastness of the water and, above it, the sky its endless mirror.
So as he was half-asleep on his inverted cross, he thought again about the delight of fishing, about how on the day after His master’s death, he had decided to fish again, to cast his net into the water. “You shall be a fisher of men,” the Messiah had told him when He had first called upon him to be a disciple. But this day, Peter would revert back to his ancient trade and simply haul in the blue tilapia and the sardines, though the words of his Master about fishing for men would stay on his mind all morning and into the afternoon.
Peter remembered the first time his Master had told him to cast his nets and fish. It happened shortly after Peter met Him, after He had cured Peter’s mother-in-law from a terrible fever and had cast out a demon from a possessed man in the synagogue. Peter, as well as James and John, the sons of Zebedee, had been fishing all night but had caught nothing. For some reason, the Lord was always closest to Peter when his nets were barren. In the morning, Jesus sat on Peter’s boat and began to preach, telling all about the kingdom of Heaven. It was a place so different from the Temple, lacking the austerity demanded by the Pharisees, and yet Peter felt it was appropriate for Jesus to spread His message from the sea, since it was so close to Heaven, indivisible from it.
At some point, after the preaching was done and the crowds had dissipated, Jesus directed Peter to go out to sea and cast his nets. Peter doubted again. Jesus was a carpenter, after all, and He knew nothing about fishing. If they had been unable to catch fish all night, how much more difficult to do it in the morning? But Peter did not want to disobey his Master.
“Because you say so,” he said, “I shall put out the nets,” and then he proceeded to hurl his nets into the water. And then the miraculous happened: they caught so many tilapia that their boat was full, and they had to place the rest of the fish they had caught in another boat. Both boats began to sink under the enormous weight of the multitudinous catch. Peter and his fellow fishermen pulled at their crowded nets with difficulty toward the shore.
Peter, astounded by such a miracle, had suddenly felt unworthy of receiving his Master’s bounty. Why would the Lord reward a man as weak as him?
“Go away from me, Lord,” Peter cried out. “I am a sinful man.”
But Peter soon learned that Jesus does not withhold His favors from sinners.
“Do not be afraid,” the Lord commanded, as He did so many times. “From now on, you shall be a fisher of men.”
Peter knows that it is only a matter of time before so much blood collects in his head that it will cause his brain to hemorrhage. Lapsing in and out of consciousness, he knows that at some point, he will not return from his dreams, but he isn’t afraid, not this time. He has the strength to pray a little, if only in his mind. And he doesn’t pray only for his fellow Christians, that they would have the courage to endure their ordeal without recanting the Way, but also for Nero, who is in the greatest need of prayer – a man who has not only persecuted the Christians but participated in so many other atrocities: the murder of his mother Agrippina, the death of his legitimate wife Claudia Octavia, the burning of all of Rome.
At some point, in a moment of consciousness, Peter can see Nero arrive at the center of the Circus Maximus on a chariot and begin to recite some poems written by his own hand. Peter cannot hear what he is saying, but he well knows Nero considers himself a musician and a poet. And then Peter lapses back into unconsciousness.
Stay tuned to read the second half of this short story next week.
Sandro Francisco Piedrahita is an American Catholic writer of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent. Before he turned to writing, he practised law for a number of years. He is Jesuit-educated, and many of his stories have to do with the lives of saints, told through a modern lens. His wife Rosa is a schoolteacher, his son Joaquin teaches English in China and his daughter Sofia is a social worker. For many years, he was an agnostic, but he has returned to the faith. Mr. Piedrahita holds a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale College and a law degree from Harvard Law School.
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