St. Peter in Prison

Rembrandt van Rijn 1631 CE1631
Oil on canvas
59 x 47.8 cm
Gift of Judy and Michael Steinhardt, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum
Accession number: B01.0148
(Photo © IMJ, by Avshalom Avita)

Based on the New Testament text in Acts 12, the painting shows the Apostle Peter in his prison cell in Jerusalem followed his arrest by Herod's soldiers. A shaft of soft golden light falls on the prisoner from an unseen source in the cell's upper left-hand corner, leaving large parts of the painting in total obscurity. Clearly visible, however, is the saint's attribute: two large keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and coincidentally suggesting the irony of his incarceration. The saint kneels, his hands clasped in prayer, but also in misery. He cannot know that the Angel of God will soon appear to bring about his miraculous deliverance. Peter's face is that of an old man, wrinkled and bearded. He is caressed by the light and by the painting's w arm colors, yet overwhelmed by melancholy and by the seemingly hopeless mission he has taken on. Although Peter's simple humanity is emphasized, the radiance around his face acts as a kind of halo, conveying his sanctity. In 1625 Rembrandt, then nineteen years old, returned to his native town of Leiden after spending six months studying with the painter Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam. He set himself up as an independent painter and soon started to take on pupils of his own. It was in Leiden, where he lived until 1632, that Rembrandt created some of his famous works, including Jeremiah Lamenting The destruction of Jerusalem in 1630 and St. Paul at His Writing Desk in 1629-30. it is clear that the same model was used for the old man in those works and in our painting of St. Peter in prison.

Zalmona, Yigal, ed., The Israel Museum at 40: Masterworks of Beauty and Sanctity, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2005
The Israel Museum, Publisher: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2005