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Perugino’s Christ Handing The Keys to Saint Peter - The Most Famous Painting in The Sistine Chapel

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Table of contents

  1. Lines
  2. Lighting
  3. Color
  4. Space
  5. Shape
  6. Texture
  7. Composition (analysis/interpretation)

The “Christ Delivering the keys of the kingdom to St. Peter” in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican City, Rome, Italy is a fresco created by Pietro Perugino with a dimension of 11’5 ½ x 18’8 ½ that represents the papacy having authority over the Catholic Church. The painting dates to the 15th century, specifically the years 1481-1483, and shows Jesus Christ handing the keys of the heavenly kingdom to St. Peter, who apparently is invisible and is not seen in the eyes of Jesus, the twelve apostles, or the other Renaissance people, who include philosophers, artists, and the public. It also shows the viewer a scene in Jesus’s everyday life.


When viewing the painting, the first thing you notice is that it looks very three dimensional as if you could put your hand all the way in or walk through the arches or in between Jesus and St. Peter. Perugino uses several techniques to create this effect. The first is the use of orthogonal lines. Orthogonal lines are diagonal lines that run from one corner to the other. An example of orthogonal line use is seen on the pavement behind Jesus, the apostles, and St. Peter. The lines recede into the middle building and converge at the center doorway. When the lines converge in such a way, they create a point of interest for the viewer.

Perugino also used horizontal lines to create dimensionality in this work. Horizontal lines run from left to right or from right to left. The horizontal lines in the painting begin at the foreground where Jesus and the other main figures are standing. The horizontal lines work their way back to the smaller figures in the middle ground and then to the three buildings in the background. Lastly, Perugino uses vertical lines in a small detail, painting the key hanging down at a vertical axis.


Perugino used lighting that was suitable to the Vatican. The scene appears to be naturally lit with a sense of subtractive light, which is basically light that is reflected from other subjects. Examples of subtractive light in the work include light reflected from the buildings to the pavement and light reflected from the sky into the people’s garments. In addition, the piece also includes saturation, a technique which uses the brightness or dullness to create a desired effect. In this case, the dullness in the background creates a hazy effect leaving the viewer to focus on the events in the foreground.


The color scheme set the tone of the painting. He chose naturalistic hues instead of bright vibrant colors. Perugino made sure that all the primary colors were used for variety. He included colors such as red, yellow, and blue and then also incorporated complementary pairs. For example, St. Peters drapery shows blue and orange while one of the apostles has green and orange. Both of those pairs of colors are complementary. But I also noted the repetition of several common colors: blue, green, and yellow. Perugino’s use of color leads me to believe that he really wanted the viewer to move their eyes back and forth across the foreground to keep them engaged.


Perugino’s use of space was essential to this work of art. The artist used several techniques to create the desired spatial relationships. First of all, the painting depicts a very spacious, airy, and welcoming environment. The overall scenery seems to be on a large scale, allowing viewers to distinguish between the figures in the foreground, middle ground, and background. For example, the painting’s depth is created with the larger figures at the foreground and the small figures in the distance that make up the acts of the New Testament near the arches. There arches seem to have symbolic value. They are so close together in space and symmetrical, which may represent the close relationship of St. Peter and Constantine. Secondly, there is an atmospheric perspective applied to the work, especially because of the atmosphere on the objects. These objects go about through the distance and create a foggy, smoky blue-gray haze in the mountainous landscape.


This artwork is not three dimensional, but two dimensional since it is sitting on a wall. The painting takes place at a square bordered by three structures on a flat paved surface. The center of the piece has an octagonal temple with two arches that are rounded and completely identical from left to right. The shapes are also formed by lines. For example, the large square is marked by a graph-like grid that creates small squares that run vertically and horizontally. Small squares are also included in the windows of the center temple. The temple also has a small triangle at the top with heavily bordered lines, making it stand out to the audience. Another important feature to note is that the clouds are shaped similarly to the apostle’s drapes. There is no specific shape but they do create sort of a wave as if the wind is blowing on them. In general, the shapes are well organized and symmetrical which is pleasing to look at.


In terms of the texture of the painting, many Renaissance artists used frescos due to the fact that they are usually used on wall surfaces. The colors in a fresco are traditionally made by combining dry insoluble powder coloration with water and then dried with plaster to have it be durable for many lasting years especially on a wall. The type of fresco used by Perugino makes it seem like the painting has a matte touch in a professional manner. If you take a look at how the clouds and the draperies have a sway and how the mountains seem to disperse out to the distance, it is because of the way of how fast Perugino applied the water painting so that the plaster is still wet to make everything such as the contours and lines stand out. In this way also, he cannot correct any sort of mistake. Also, if we look very closely, it very much looks like the painting is three dimensional when in fact it’s two dimensional which gives us an illusion. Paintings that are on walls will most of the time show the length and the width but doesn’t give us the sense of depth. When we first catch a glimpse, it definitely seems like we have that sense of depth. A couple of examples of that would be such as grasping the key that Jesus is giving to St. Peter or even walking through the arches which is all due to how great of a job Perugino did of making the painting feel so real.

Composition (analysis/interpretation)

Overall, the artist was very successful at creating depth and dimensionality in his work. This was a popular aspiration during the Early Resistance. The painting’s arrangement of figures and objects creates a complex, but inviting world that the viewer feels they could step into if they pleased. The main composition very much depicted a large triangle with its vertices. The vertices include Christ and St. Peter at one point in the center of the painting with the two arches at the other two points creating that style of vertex. Jesus and St. Peter also highlighted the center axis that runs between them to the center of the doorway situated in the background. This is helpful to realize the vanishing point. With elements such as shapes and lines, Perugino did an amazing job of making sure that the painting consisted of a three-dimensional feel. The placement of Jesus and Peter conveys their central importance. Perugino transforms this scene from the Old Testament into an imaginary reality by creating a naturalistic and humanistic world.

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