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06.28.2020 Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

Updated: Oct 10, 2020

Nicholas Poussin




Louvre (Paris)

Poussin illustrates Christ giving the Keys of Heaven to Peter. Poussin sets the story, not on the road, but in an urban setting that conflates ancient Rome with Jerusalem. To the right is a pyramid topped structure that recalls a similar structure still to be seen in the Kidron Valley in Jerusalem traditionally identified as the Tomb of Zechariah.

The tomb of Zechariah replaces Castel Sant'Angelo (the ancient Tomb of the Emperor Hadrian) in its place at one end of Ponte Sant'Angelo, a bridge that appears frequently in Poussin's work.

If that is Ponte Sant'Angelo, then this story would be taking place on the bank of the Tiber just to the east of the bridge. Where Christ raises His right hand with the Key would be the location of St. Peter's Basilica from this viewpoint.

Bernini would eventually transform Ponte Sant'Angelo into a giant meditation on Christ's Passion and Death with a series of marble angels holding instruments of Christ's Passion.

The proximity of tomb and bridge was long used to illustrate the idea of death and salvation.

Poussin uses the bridge and tomb frequently in his paintings, even in paintings of Classical mythology such as the myth of Orpheus. It always plays a role suggesting death and salvation.

Strangest of all is the stone monument to the left with a very prominent letter "E" carved on it. Usually, this was interpreted as standing for "Emmanuel" or "Ecclesia."

The "E" for [the Greek] "ei" would be the first two words of Christ's commandment to Peter, "Thou art Peter, the rock upon whom I will build my Church”.


Matthew 16:13-19

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”


The Context

The Gospel of Matthew is constructed upon three very important theological statements:

  • at the beginning of the Gospel: the Magi recognize the Infant Jesus as the Son of God [1];

  • in the middle: Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah; and

  • at the end, the Centurion declares Jesus to be the Son of God[2].

This text stands right at the centre of the Gospel of Matthew and is articulated in three parts:

  1. What people think of Jesus;

  2. What Peter thinks of Jesus;

  3. The promise Jesus tells Peter (exclusive to the Gospel of Matthew[3]).

Caesarea Philippi

Jesus just had an argument with the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He gives a strong warning to His Disciples about them. It is not surprising that Jesus travels as far as Caesarea Philippi, because Caesarea is out of the influence of King Herod, and in this beautiful Roman city, where the springs of water give birth to the River Jordan, He wants to instruct his disciples, probably taking distance from the previous conflict and other dangers.

Caesarea was a city with many Assyrian temples of ancient deities. It also included a temple dedicated to the Roman Emperor. It is in this context that a poor Carpenter from Nazareth, a tiny city in Judea is going to make a direct question to his no less poor disciples expecting from them the answer: “You are the Son of God”.

In this way, the Gospel of Matthew stresses the point that Jesus Christ is God, the only true God.

What the people think of Jesus

People seem to hold Jesus in high esteem. For a Jew, to think of another fellow Jew as the incarnation of a Prophet like Elijah or Jeremiah is the most remarkable compliment one could expect.

However, this answer does not pay credit to whom Jesus is.

They consider him not to be a real person. He is not himself, but the reincarnation of somebody else.

Actually, the comparison with Elijah makes more sense as the Jews were expecting his second coming[4]. For them, Jesus would be the forerunner of the Messiah, a great compliment but, definitely they had missed the identity of Jesus.

What Peter says of Jesus

‘You are the Son of God’:

In the Gospel of Matthew, Peter is not the first one calling Jesus, ‘Son of God’[5], but when Peter does, he means that Jesus is God and comes from God while others used the title to refer to him as a person who had a special relationship with God, the way the ancient Kings of Israel had.

‘You are the Messiah’:

The title Messiah is used 38 times in the Old Testament. The Messiah is the anointed one, he who is set apart, separated from the rest of the people, in a way, with a dignity high above others. The expected Messiah was to be a human hero, a liberator and the ruler in the last days, but not the ultimate Saviour.

However, the image of the Prophets about the Messiah pointed to different vision: the vision of the ideal King who will not rely on the power of horses or soldiers to win his battles. The prophetic King’s reign will be of perfect peace and justice, and He will be a Shepherd: a human figure, but with divine characteristics.

When he calls Jesus, the Messiah, Peter is doing something no one else had done before him: Peter identifies Jesus with the ideal King that brings about the perfection of God’s Kingdom.

For Peter, Jesus is the Saviour of the Chosen People of God.

Napoleon said: “I know men. Jesus Christ is more than a man”. This is what Peter professed: Jesus is the Christ, Jesus is God.

The promise Jesus tells Peter

The question of Jesus is an important one. Jesus does not ask this question out of curiosity to build up his ego. Jesus has walked all this time with His Disciples and wants to test if his message has passed through his words and deeds, has been received and perceived. The whole history of salvation depends on this question: if no one has perceived who He is, there will no be future for the Church, for the New People of Israel.

· Jesus Blesses Peter: Jesus seems to be satisfied with the answer Peter gives: At

least somebody understood him!

While other Jews may consider Peter a fool for calling Jesus the Messiah, for Jesus

Peter is a blessed man[6].

· After his blessing Jesus makes two promises:

to build his Church upon Peter;

to give Peter the Keys of the Kingdom.

These two promises rest on two symbols: the rock and the key.

The Rock

In the Old Testament God was the “Rock”[7] and in the New Testament Jesus is the “Corner Stone”[8]. Jesus knows that the building depends on Himself and on God.

Peter is the first stone of the building which is the Church, but we should not think so much of the Church that we come to know later in history with its organized structures. At that moment, Jesus is forming a tiny community that represents the Old Testament “a congregation of people” (Qahal –in Hebrew-).

In this sense, Peter and the Apostles are the foundation of the building that is the Church, and all of us are living stones that belong to that same building. Jesus is the Cornerstone and Peter and the Apostles are the first living stones[9].

The Key

The key is the symbol of responsibility and power given to some persons to decide who must enter and who must remain outside.

Jesus is the Door[10], the only Saviour and Lord. With his death He opens the gates of Paradise and closes the way to perdition. Jesus breaks open the doors of the Kingdom and nothing will prevail against it[11].

Peters exercises his service as the elders who delivered Justice at the gate of the city of Jerusalem[12] did. In this sense, Jesus is placing Peter as the steward of his Kingdom.

And Peter did his good job as a faithful servant of the Lord when he opened the door and delivered the first proclamation of the Kerygma to Jews and gentiles alike after Pentecost[13]. He opened the door of faith in Christ to the gentiles, too[14]. He had a great responsibility of leading the infant Church to the non-Jews. This early Christian Church needed a leader and Peter was the leader. Peter took those decisions and God built up His Church on those living stones: Peter and the Apostles.


Be Thou My Vision

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart; Naught be all else to me, save that thou art - Thou my best thought, by day or by night; Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true word; I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord.

Thou my great Father; thine own may I be, Thou in me dwelling and I one with thee.

Riches I heed not, nor vain, empty praise; Thou mine inheritance, now and always; Thou and thou only first in my heart, High King of heaven, my treasure thou art.

High King of heaven, my victory won, May I reach heaven's joys, O bright heaven's sun! Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, Still be my vision, O Ruler of all.


Jesus takes his disciples to a lonely place where He was to meet them away from other worries and preoccupations. We, too, need to take time away to create around us a place of quiet and silence to speak to God and to listen to God speaking to us.

“Who do you say that I am?” is the definitive question to which we need to give an answer to Jesus, each one of us, personally, as Peter did. Jesus wants to know how much He is important for us, how much His words have reached the depths of our heart.

Who is Jesus for us, for me?

We are the living stones, the foundation stones, for the faith of others, built upon the Apostles and built on the only Rock, Jesus Christ. We can contemplate how God has gifted each one of us with faith to cherish and to share.

Peter and Paul and the rest of the Apostles did their part in proclaiming and living out the Gospel of Life. It is our turn to be stewards of God’s Kingdom, active members of a living and loving community of believers.


[1] Matthew 2:11: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh”. [2] Matthew 27:54: “Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’” [3] Mark 8:27-30 [4] Mal. 3:23: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts”. [5] Matthew 14:33: “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” [6] Matthew 11:25: ”At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him”. [7] Genesis 49:24: “The Mighty One of Jacob, by the name of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel”. Deuteronomy 32:4: “The Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he”. 1 Samuel 2:2: ““There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God”. 2 Samuel 22:32: “For who is God, but the Lord? And who is a rock, except our God?” [8] Ephesians 2:20: “Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone”. [9] 1 Cor. 3:11: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ”. [10] Rev. 1:18; 3:7: “[I am] the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades”. “These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens”. [11] Acts. 2:24.27: “But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power”. “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption”. [12] Deut. 21:19; 25:7: “Then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place”. “But if the man has no desire to marry his brother’s widow, then his brother’s widow shall go up to the elders at the gate.” [13] Acts. 2: 41; Isa. 22:22 [14] Acts. 10:34-35: “Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him”.

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