Journal of Early Modern Studies

Volume 12, Issue 2, Fall 2023


Simen K. Nielsen
Pages 11-64

Caravaggio’s The Crucifixion of St. Peter
Spectatorship, Martyrdom and the Iconic Image in Early Modern Italy

This paper explores conflations of martyrdom, spectatorship, and image theory in Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter (1601). It argues that Caravaggio employs an “iconic” visual formula as a response to the pressures of a post-Tridentine poetics. Through these strategies, an iconography of immediacy and presence is paired with a sacrificial subject-matter. This merging united witness and visual experience in the shape of the sacred image. Martyrdom, as both a historical and representational phenomenon of early modern sociality and culture, invoked the act of spectatorship. In connecting the Crucifixion of St. Peter with the cultural and aesthetic paradigms of post-Tridentine Italy, the article argues that Caravaggio’s image re-imagines the codes of iconic repre­sentation. While not a novel academic context for Caravaggio scholarship, I will read this image less as the expression of stylistic tensions in the Roman artworld than as the result of overlapping frameworks—martyrdom, Petrine iconography, and a Counter-Reformation aesthetic. Reenergized as part of the visual rhetoric of Tridentine politics, the icon reflected a new propensity for paleochristian cultural revival. Discussing both the contextual pressures of this new aesthetic regime as well as intertwining it with the increasing presence of Catholic image treatises, the article suggests an “iconic” space for reading Caravaggio’s Crucifixion. This “iconic” framework is built into the charged discourse surrounding the image itself.