Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter by Pietro Perugino
Interpretation of Early Renaissance Biblical Fresco

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Christ Handing the Keys
to St Peter.
By Pietro Perugino.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter (1482)


Other Renaissance Frescoes Explained


Name: "Christ Handing the Keys of the Kingdom to Saint Peter"
Date: 1481-2
Artist: Pietro Perugino (1450-1523)
Medium: Fresco painting
Genre: Biblical art
Movement: Early Renaissance painting
Location: Sistine Chapel, Rome

For analysis and explanation of other important pictures from the Renaissance, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For analysis of frescoes by
Early Renaissance painters
like Pietro Perugino, see
our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Christ Handing the Keys to St Peter

One of the greatest religious paintings of the Italian Renaissance, Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter was created for the Vatican at the request of Pope Sixtus IV, by the Umbrian artist Pietro Perugino. It is important for two main reasons. First, its iconography illustrates the dogma surrounding Papal authority. Second, like Piero della Francesca's Flagellation of Christ (1450-60) and Uccello's Hunt in the Forest (1470), it demonstrates the concept of linear perspective, as originally proposed in 1435 by the Italian architect and artist Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) in his treatise Della Pittura (On Painting).

Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter is located in the Sistine Chapel, Rome. The commission was given to Perugino because of his successful series of mural paintings for a chapel in the Old St Peter's Basilica in Rome. Pope Sixtus was so delighted by his work, that he summoned him - along with his Umbrian colleague Pinturicchio (1454-1513), and the Florentines Alessandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94) and Luca Signorelli (1440-1523) - to decorate the newly built Sistine Chapel (erected 1473-81).

The painting is based upon the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 16:13-19, when he says to Simon Peter: "upon this rock I will build my church... and I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven." By illustrating the transfer of authority from Christ to the first 'Pope', Peter, the fresco reinforces the legitimacy of Petrine authority, from which all subsequent Papal authority flows. It is therefore an obvious theme to be represented on the walls of the Papal Sistine Chapel - one of the most important buildings in the Vatican.

The focal point of the fresco is the centre of the foreground, where a standing Christ is shown giving a set of keys (the symbol of ecclesiastic power) to a kneeling Saint Peter. The pair are surrounded by groups of apostles as well as several witnesses in contemporary dress. This carefully staged piece of Renaissance art symbolizes the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession. (For more, see: Catholic Counter-Reformation Art 1560-1700.)



The scene takes place against a backdrop of a flat, spacious square, bordered in the middle distance by three structures. In the centre there is an octagonal temple (Temple of Solomon); to the right and left, are two identical triumphal arches, modelled upon the Arch of Constantine, erected by the Roman Emperor whose Edict of Milan legalized Christianity in 313. The large square is marked by a sort of grid formed by lines of paving. The grid's horizontal lines are cut by diagonal orthogonal lines that converge on the temple in the distance, creating a very strong and realistic impression of depth in the picture. Beyond the square, a range of mountains recede into the distance, thanks to Perugino's use of aerial perspective. Overall, the painting shows the success of Early Renaissance art in creating the illusion of three-dimensional depth in a two-dimensional picture plane.

Ironically, the very Papal authority alluded to in Perugino's fresco, caused the latter work to be completely overshadowed by an extensive series of new Sistine Chapel frescoes created by one of the best artists of all time. In 1508, Pope Julius II (1503-13) decided to revitalize Renaissance art in Rome, and commissioned Michelangelo (1475-1564) to decorate the Sistine Chapel ceiling with his Genesis fresco (1508-12). Then, some twenty years later, in 1534, the same artist was commissioned by Pope Paul III (1534-49) to decorate the altar wall of the chapel, with his Last Judgment fresco (1536-41), based on designs drawn up by Pope Clement VII (1523-34).

Other Renaissance Frescoes Explained

For an interpretation of other fresco paintings of the Italian Renaissance, see the following articles:

The Annunciation (c.1450) San Marco Museum, Florence.
By Fra Angelico.

Brancacci Chapel frescoes (1424-8) Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.
By Masaccio.

Camera degli Sposi frescoes (1465-74) Camera Picta, Ducal Palace, Mantua.
By Andrea Mantagna.

Creation of Adam (1511-12) Sistine Chapel, Rome.
By Michelangelo.

School of Athens (1509-11) Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican.
By Raphael.


• For the meaning of other Early Renaissance fresco paintings, see: Homepage.

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