Fundación Casa Ducal de Medinaceli

Las Lágrimas de San Pedro

Housed in the Hospital Tavera, probably a commission from the rector Don Pedro Salazar de Mendoza (1549-1629), is a painting on canvas of Saint Peter in Tears (c. 1605), a logical iconographic theme as Mendoza's patron saint was Peter, he was the canon penitentiary of Toledo Cathedral, and this iconography had been considered particularly representative of the male exercise of the sacrament of penitence owing to the saint's repentance and contrition. Saint Peter, tears welling in his eyes on account of his guilt at denying Christ during the Passion, gazes upwards begging for divine forgiveness, clasping his hands in an intensely moving gesture of prayer. The saint's half-length figure is silhouetted against a crag with ivy--a plant traditionally associated with irritation and lamentation--in a setting that appears to be a reference to the desert environments of penitent saints like Saint Jerome and Saint Mary Magdalene. In the background of the painting is Christ's tomb after the Resurrection, with the angel seated on the lid and the figure of a man [] --sometimes interpreted as the risen Christ but probably Saint Peter himself after visiting the empty tomb (Luke, XXIV; John, XX)--and in other versions perhaps a woman, who walks away. In this iconography El Greco appears to mix two gospel passages, Simon Peter's visit to Golgotha (not mentioned in St Mark's Gospel, XVI) and Saint Peter's repentance, which had taken place before the Crucifixion (Matthew, XXVI; Mark, XIV; Luke, XXII), and which was later further specified by including the cockerel that announced with its crowing the dawning of Holy Friday; the keys [] hanging from his left wrist allow him to be clearly identified as Saint Peter and the rock of the Church, confirming the forgiveness that sprang from penitence, but again they fall outside the chronological sequence of the gospel account.

When he died in 1629 Salazar de Mendoza had three paintings of Saint Peter, "in the upper part of the house", in his "study" and in the "office" in his rector's quarters in the hospital, although none of them--like none of those in his large collection--is attributed to the Cretan and the type of image is not specified; even so, only this painting is listed in the 1762 inventory of the hospital's possessions.

This painting is signed lower left in Greek italics "'epoiei", a Greek formula similar to the Latin "faciebat", and dates from a late stage in the Cretan painter's career. In this respect it is close to works displaying a similar iconography and composition in the cathedral and El Greco museum in Toledo [] and in the San Diego Art Museum (USA) [], and is a far cry from earlier versions of this theme painted around 1585-1590, such as that in the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle in Durham (UK) [].

This composition marks a very personal contribution by El Greco to Catholic Counter-Reformation iconography, which advocated regular penitence as a means of achieving forgiveness for sins and, ultimately, salvation. The serial nature of the artist's work, of which a large number of versions are known, weakens the hypothesis that the theme is linked to the penitence and forgiveness of sinning priests and alludes to the plea for forgiveness made by the archbishop of Toledo Bartolomé Carranza de Miranda, who was accused and convicted of heresy in Rome by the Holy Inquisition. Although Salazar, as historian and canon of the cathedral,  defended Carranza's good name and wrote a biography in defence of Carranza and the Toledan church, these do not seem sufficient reason for this highly successful iconography.

Any male believer could identify with Peter in his wish for forgiveness, and not only before desiring a good death and resurrection that is referred to in the background of the painting; in the Toledo hospital, which was concerned with both physical health and spiritual salvation, a priest would stand by the bedside of each dying person, urging him to exercise penitence and repent his sins before passing away, in order to achieve eternal salvation.

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Fernando Marías