Gospel in art: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church


Study for Velazquez Pope II, by Francis Bacon, 1961 © Vatican Museum, Vatican City

Source: Christian art

Gospel of September 3, 2022
Matthew 16:13-19

When Jesus came to the area of ​​Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples this question: “Who do they say that the Son of man is? And they said, ‘Some say he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, some Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.’ “But you,” he said, “who do you say I am? Then Simon Peter spoke: “You are the Christ”, he said, “the Son of the living God”. Jesus replied, “Simon, son of Jonah, you are a happy man! For flesh and blood has not revealed it to you, but my Father who is in heaven. So I say to you now: You are Peter. and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will never be able to resist it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be counted bound in heaven; whatever you loosed on earth will be considered loosed in heaven.

Reflection on painting

In today’s reading we see Jesus personally appointing Peter as head of the Church. And since the popes (including Pope Gregory the Great, whose feast we are celebrating today) are the successors of Saint Peter, today we come to this painting by Francis Bacon. Born in Ireland, he is known for his very distinctive, sometimes disturbing, very emotionally charged raw images. The painting we are looking at is part of the Vatican collections. Bacon based this painting on Velazquez’s 1650 Portrait of Innocent X (in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome), which the artist considered “one of the greatest paintings in the world.” It was donated to the Vatican Museum by Gianni Agnelli, owner of Fiat Motors.

This is probably one of the most “tame” interpretations of Bacon’s pope. We see an almost black background, stripped of all distractions, with the character staring straight at us, just like in Velasquez’s original painting. Bacon produced a series of these “Pope Paintings” for over 20 years, returning and returning to the same subject and giving it new interpretations according to his stage of life and mood. Obviously, he wasn’t just paying homage to an image he loved, but had become obsessed with the subject. Many theories exist as to why he kept coming back to this subject. Yes, it’s probably an image that distills and instills power in an iconic way, but Bacon’s Catholic roots and a deep respect for the papal office kept coming to the fore, and that, combined with the deep issues he had with the Church, has resulted in some of these beautiful but terrifying images that reflect his inner conflict.

As head of the Catholic Church and bishop of Rome, the pope is above all the supreme pastor, as the successor of Saint Peter. This means that as a pastor he represents Christ’s love, concern and care for each individual. It is easy for us, when looking at the portraits of all the popes over the years, often richly painted in robes, to lose sight of this primary mission of the popes as pastors. Here, the art doesn’t always do justice to their roles, their accomplishments, their responsibilities, and often over-glorifies and perhaps over-embellishes where it shouldn’t. For me, this portrait of Bacon brings the tradition of papal portraits back to a certain simplicity and reality. Saint Peter said: “What matters is not your outward appearance, but your inner disposition. Cultivate inner beauty, the gentle and gracious kind that God delights in… Ultimately, yes, the inner beauty of popes matters, not how popes may have been portrayed outwardly in art.

Pope Gregory the Great (540-604AD)… Pray for us.


Gospel in art: https://christian.art/
Today’s picture: https://christian.art/daily-gospel-reading/matthew-16-13-19-2022-4/

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