The art essay

Saint Peter Enthroned with Saints John the Baptist and Paul (c. 1515) by Giovanni Battista Cima, also called Cima da Conegliano (c. 1460–1517)

It may seem strange at first to learn that the Church has a feast day with a name alluding to a piece of furniture. Yet the feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle centers on an important theological concept: the chair signifies the continuing love of Christ who established the papacy to govern his people in charity until his second coming. It reminds Christians that Christ did not abandon his Church after the Ascension, but established a living tradition of teaching, governing, and sanctifying that arises from his own plan of salvation. In the Catholic sacramental system, then, Peter’s chair is more than a relic. It is a throne because of the spiritual authority conferred upon the one who sits on it, and signifies not only the God-given authority held by Peter himself, but the continuation of that tradition in every pope as Peter’s successor in the Petrine Office. Cima da Conegliano’s Saint Peter Enthroned with Saints John the Baptist and Paul not only shows the exalted status of Saint Peter in heaven, but reveals the glorified nature of his chair as well.

Eternity in time

Originally installed above an altar in a convent near Venice, the painting gives the worshiper a look into the heavenly realm, where illusionistic columns at the left and right mark the edges of a fictive covered room open to a heavenly landscape. With the first pontiff placed higher than Saint John the Baptist at his right and Saint Paul at his left, Saint Peter’s importance is clearly shown, while a blood-red marble circle under his feet recalls his martyrdom. Yet interestingly, the chair itself is obscured by other symbols of Peter’s authority. His golden cope, held by a gem-covered clasp, indicates his priestly authority as Vicar of Christ, as does the red stole beneath. The subject of the painting is reinforced in the self-referential details of the cope’s very fabric, as close inspection reveals an embroidered image of Saint Peter on his own right shoulder and Saint Paul on the left. The same Petrine authority signified by the chair appears in his headdress: the three-tiered papal tiara indicates the three realms of papal authority as Bishop of Rome, head of the entire Church, and secular ruler of the Papal States. At his feet lie two keys, one gold and one silver, representing his Christ-given authority to bind and loose the things of heaven and earth (Mt 16:19).

A large blue tapestry behind the throne divides the painting into three distinct zones, intentionally emphasizing Saint Peter at the center, but also giving the other saints vertical zones where the lightness of the sky beyond accentuates and highlights their faces. The arrangement of figures partakes of the Renaissance painting convention known as sacra conversazione, literally meaning “sacred conversation.” Yet the gaze of each figure seems utterly unconnected with the others as each looks in a different direction. The Latin roots of the word “conversation” indicate the word’s original meaning as something more like the “action of being together among other persons,” and so sacra conversazione is less about talking and more about sacred togetherness. The saints’ contemplative gazes reveal what one art historian has called a “rapt stillness of mood,” in which they communicate not by normal human interaction, but at a deep spiritual level based on their unity in Christ as members of his Mystical Body.

On the viewer’s left, John the Baptist retains the ragged camel hair tunic of his ascetical life in the desert, but now wears a green cape indicating his heavenly gift of eternal life. His cross-shaped staff and upward-pointing right hand recall his role in preparing the coming of Christ. The scrolling banner on his staff reads I am the voice calling out in the wilderness (Jn 1:23), an idea foretold centuries earlier by the prophet Isaiah (Is 40:3). On the opposite side, Saint Paul, wrapped in a red garment representative of his martyrdom, holds a large book indicating his erudite education and literacy, later used in writing his many letters enshrined in Sacred Scripture. In a technique common in Christian iconography, the sword of his beheading at the hands of Roman authorities is held with confidence as an emblem of victory. The sword also carries other meanings, since Paul speaks of the Word of God as sharper than a double-edged sword (Heb 4:12) and urges Christians to put on the spiritual armor of Christ, including the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:17).

God’s saving plan in art and authority

In every way, the painting presents a tangible physicality: exquisite detail, realistic textures, believable fabric, a recognizably correct landscape, and even a musically accurate hand position on the lute-playing angel. Yet at the same time, all is hushed, perfect and still—like a frozen ballet. Elegance of pose joins with lively, contemplative prayerfulness evident on each face, as if the figures see something beyond earthly space and time and engage with the realities of eternity. Simplicity and grandeur coexist in the saints’ realm; the things of the earth portray a heavenly perfection.

A deeply Catholic theology of creation underpins Saint Peter Enthroned. Christ truly became human in the Incarnation, confirming the goodness of creation. Similarly, Cima’s work is infused with a tangible materiality which accepts the things of the world. But Christ’s resurrected body revealed that matter could be transfigured by heavenly glory. And so Cima’s saints, landscape, clothing, and furniture reach into the heavenly future and bring it backward in time for the viewer to encounter. And though Christ does not appear explicitly in the painting, the effects of his saving mission are shown through every brushstroke. By imitating God the Creator, Cima da Conegliano becomes the revealer of God’s plan for human salvation, just as the successor of Peter does the same by shepherding the Church. The authority signified by the chair of Peter moves, therefore, from intellectual construct to visual encounter through the hand of the artist, and the eye and mind delight.

Denis R. McNamara

Associate Professor of Sacramental Aesthetics, the Liturgical Institute, Mundelein, Ill.


Saint Peter Enthroned with Saints John the Baptist and Paul (c. 1515), Giovanni Battista Cima, also called
Cima da Conegliano (c. 1460–1517), Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy.

© akg-images / Erich Lessing.