Giovanni Lanfranco’s “Christ saves Saint Peter from sinking in the water” is a baroque translation of Giotto di Bondone’s “Navicella” also featured in St. Peter’s Basilica in a lunette over the central opening into the portico.Just like Giotto’s interpretation, the current mosaic present in St. Peter’s depicts the special relationship between Jesus and Peter. Jesus walks on the water inviting Peter to join him, and when Peter is overcome with fear and begins to sink, Jesus saves him. The following bible passage describes the scene:
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:28-33 NIV)
In Lanfranco’s version of the piece, the figure’s expressions and postures are more emphasized than Giotto’s depiction, and the composition is more complex. The viewer’s eye is first drawn to Peter’s distressed face and hands thrown in the air, highlighting his fear. Jesus, depicted with a serene face of love, grasps Peter’s hand. Lanfranco further underlines this relationship representing both Peter and Jesus in blue attire. Compositionally, the scene in the foreground is imposed on a highly charged and dynamic background. Though Jesus’s vestments reflect the turbulence of the surrounding climate, his posture is upright and undisturbed contrasting both Peter and the rest of the Apostles’ active, diagonal stances as well as the tempestuous scenery. Jesus’s left hand gestures upward, urging Peter to recall his faith denoted by the cherubs and break in the clouds. One could also metaphorically interpret the painting reading the storm striking fear in the apostles as representing sin and temptation. As Peter’s faith falters, he begins to sink into the water, but Jesus saves him.
The artist, Giovanni Lanfranco (1582 -1647), was an early proponent of the Baroque style, which is characterized by lavishly theatrical settings and scenes, emotionally intense depictions representing both physical and psychological states, and dramatic use of color with strong contrasts between light and dark. The Baroque style flourished in Europe during the early 17ththrough the late 18thcentury, and its influence is identifiable most prominently in the architecture, art, and music of the time. The Baroque artwork is highly ornamented and extravagant, directly reacting to the artistic austerity espoused by Martin Luther and the Reformation movement.
Here are some other characteristic examples of Baroque artwork featured in the Vatican Museum’s Pinacoteca:
Lanfranco studied in Parma, his birthplace, under Agostino Caracci and was inspired by Correggio’s fresco work in the surrounding Italian region. He spent the majority of his career in Rome working on frescoes such as those in the Sala Regia, though he also worked in Naples from 1634 to 1646. He made his name as a progressive and efficient fresco artist especially adept at painting domes. In 1626, Urban VIII commissioned Lanfranco to replace an altarpiece (also depicting the Navicella) painted by Bernardo Castello. Upon hearing that his work in St. Peter’s Basilica, the highpoint of his career, would be replaced due to its deterioration, Castello is said to have become distraught.
There is a long history of depictions of this scene in the basilica particularly because of the connection it has with the primacy of St. Peter among the other Apostles. Castello’s previous altarpiece was commissioned by Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) in an attempt to use the image of Peter as the Vicar of Christ to reaffirm papal power as a response to Protestant publicity. Despite being painted in fresco, Lanfranco’s work also began to deteriorate soon after. It was successively restored 1662 by Raffaele Vanni, then in 1687 and 1694 by Giuseppe Montano. The current composition was transferred to its current place in the Benediction Loggia in 1721 and was replaced by Pietro Paolo Cristofari’s mosaic replica in 1727.
The latest restoration process was sponsored by Bruce Waller from the Illinois chapter in 2013. Thanks to his support, the legacy of this piece and the continued presence of the Navicella narrative will endure for years to come. Lanfranco’s Navicella is by far his most dramatic piece painted in Rome and is considered the peak of his artistic development in the Baroque style.