De Brancacci Chapel: Masolino, Masaccio and Filippino Lippi  (Santa Maria del Carmine) 2/6

The meaning of the fresco cycle

The cycle centres around Peter, the name saint of Piero di Piuvichese (Brancacci). Piero had donated the chapel to the church and Felice Brancacci, the patron, had no choice but to take Peter as the subject.173 Additionally, as previously described, this evangelist fits well with the stage performance of Ascension in the crossing directly in front of the Brancacci chapel. The fresco cycle is based on two sources: the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament and the story of Peter in the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Varagine (read here in English). The raising of the son of Theophilus is mentioned in the Golden Legend, but not with Peter (Leg. Aur. XLIV The Cathedra Sancti Petri; the count according to Maggioni) as is the case with the other painted stories.

The central theme of the cycle is Peter as a repentant sinner who is redeemed from his sins and succeeds Christ on earth. Peter shows us the way to salvation. This, of course, is a perfect subject for a burial chapel. Of the painted repentance of Peter, only a part of a sinopia is left that was brought out during the great restoration. This event is crucial to understand the narrative cycle. Christ spoke at the Last Supper after Peter assured him that he would never betray Christ:

‘I assure you, this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.’ And if Christ is interrogated after he is captured, Peter will follow him and thus Matthew.’

Peter is on the left under the rooster
The betrayal of Peter Miniature

‘Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!” After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.” Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed’

Matthew (26: 34, 69-75)

Peter betrays his Lord and commits sin. According to the story about this apostle in the Golden Legend, Peter repented for his betrayal:

‘It is said for certain that he bare always a sudary in his bosom with which he wiped the tears that ran from his eyes; for when he remembered the sweet presence of our Lord, for the great love that he had to him he might not forbear weeping. And also when he remembered that he had rented him, he wept abundantly great plenty of tears, in such wise that he was so accustomed to weep that his face was burnt with tears as it seemed, like as Clement saith. And saith also that in the night when he heard the rooster crow he would weep customably.’

Chapter 89 of the Golden Legend by Jacobus Voragine (1275), translated by William Caxton, 1483

It will be clear to the reader that Peter was sincerely sorry. Peter not only received the keys to the Gate of Heaven later on, but also became the first Pope.

The moral was clear to every Christian: Peter’s repentance and the grace of the Lord finally redeemed him. This also explains why Adam and Eve were depicted on the left and right when entering the chapel. Masolino painted the Fall on the right and on the opposite wall, Masaccio painted the expulsion from Paradise.174  The entire cycle comes from the New Testament, why does it then suddenly show two scenes from the Old Testament? Adam and Eve were the first sinners. Because of their sin, mankind was doomed. Christ’s death on the cross would again redeem mankind. Peter, as repentant sinner, as apostle and first pope, points the way to salvation. This makes it possible for the believer to return to paradise, heaven, after an earthly life.

A recurring question in literature about this chapel is: why is there no image of Christ giving Peter the keys to heaven, even though that is the theme of the play that was performed in the crossing in front of the chapel? According to art historian Pope-Hennesy, Donatello’s relief The Ascension with Christ giving the Keys to St Peter, is part of the original altar from the dugento (thirteenth century).175

Donatello Christ giving the Keys to St Peter c. 1425-1430 Victoria and Albert Museum, London  and large size google art project
Donatello Christ giving the Keys to St Peter c. 1425-1430 Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The stories from the life of Peter in the Brancacci chapel are listed by Jacob de Varagine in his account of this apostle as follows:

‘Peter went upon the sea [painted but gone]; he was chosen of God to be at his transfiguration, and raised a maid from death to life; he found the stater or piece of money in the fish’s mouth; he received of our Lord the keys of the kingdom of heaven [relief Donatello on altar]; he took the charge to feed the sheep of Jesus Christ [disappeared]. He converted at a Whitsuntide three thousand men, he healed Claude with John, and then converted five thousand men; he said to Ananias and Saphira their death before; he healed Eneas of the palsy; he raised Tabitha; he baptized Cornelia; with the shadow of his body he healed sick men; he was put in prison by Herod, but by the angel of our Lord he was delivered.’

Chapter 89 of the Golden Legend by Jacobus Voragine (1275), translated by William Caxton, 1483

Flippino Lippi
Paul visits Peter
  Flippino Lippi
Angel frees Peter
Flippino Lippi 'Paul visits Peter' Brancacci Chapel   Flippino Lippi 'Angel frees Peter' Brancacci Chapel

Click here for the continuation of day 5