Papacy in Perugino’s The Gift of the Keys

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Before I discuss the importance of various symbols in Perugino's The Gift of the Keys, it is important to note that the vast majority of my knowledge about the significance of the participants and architecture in the painting come from the writing of art historian Carol Lewine, whom in her recent book discusses the fifteenth century frescoes of the Sistine Chapel (65-74). I will be following her identifications, and adding to them my own interpretations of the contribution of artistic conception and composition to meaning and effect.

What makes Perugino's painting significant are the strong political, religious, and social comments made through the powerful symbols in Perugino's work. One of the first, and most important, elements to notice in The Gift of The Keys is the way nearly every object in the painting manages to focus attention on the central figures of Christ and Peter. Even though the two are not physically separated from the rest of the figures in the scene, it becomes immediately obvious to the viewer that Christ and Peter are the principal subjects of this painting.

To the left of Christ stand six apostles, the other six apostles (counting Peter) positioned immediately to his right. Also flanking Christ and Peter are the dual representations of the Arch of Constantine, and immediately in bac of Christ and Peter is the glorious Temple of Solomon. The important aspect of this centralization of Christ and Peter is that it shows that even with all of the other symbols in the painting, the most important one is the gift of the keys.

When Christ hands the two keys to Peter, he symbolically hands him the power to distinguish between good and evil, and the power to "bind and loose" or to "absolve sinners after appropriate penance", as Lewine puts it.