The Liberation of St Peter
(Luca Giordano)



It was at the time of this crossroad of influences that Giordano painted The Liberation of St. Peter. St. Peter’s liberation from jail was not a common baroque theme. It is not, for example, included among the Barockthemen listed by Andreas Pigler nor is it quoted by Émile Mâle in his monumental work on religious art after the Council of Trent. In Naples there was the painting by Battistello Caracciolo at the Pio Monte, done in an orthodox Caravaggesque style, with a simple view of a dark interior and six figures. The standing figures of St. Peter and the angel exit towards the left. But Giordano it seems was not interested in this painting. There are at least two paintings with the same subject by Ribera (now at the Prado and Dresden, respectively) which Giordano may or may not have known. They have simple composition showing an angel liberating Peter who is still reclining on the ground. These two paintings are similar to yet another Giordano composition, now in a private collection, which may be dated later than our painting. All of these works differ from ours on account of their simplicity having only the two figures of the angel and the saint . But Raphael’s Liberation of St. Peter [Fig. 2] in the Stanza d’Eliodoro in the Vatican constitutes a classic prototype and must have made a great impression on the young painter from Naples when he studied it in the early 1650s. That the present composition was created with Raphael’s version in mind is clear. Unlike previous examples it is in the ‘Grand Manner’, as large in size as a fresco, with a complete view of the prison. The monumentality and symmetry of the composition are similar to Raphael’s fresco as are the idealized nobility of the main figures and the gleaming rendering of the soldiers’ armor. The painting was intended to be a meditation on Raphael at his most complete. It is Roman in concept yet Venetian in style and colour at the same time.

Not much has been said in the past about Giordano and Raphael, but Raphael was in Giordano’s thoughts from his earliest days in Rome. There are the early copies from the Stanze, produced on one of his many trips to Rome, of which versions from 1650-51, 1654 and 1656 are documented. De Dominici stated in his biography of the painter that ‘He [Giordano] said that he had drawn many, many times the Logge, and the Stanze of Raphael, and no less than twelve times the whole Battle of Constantine painted by the excellent Giulio Romano.’ The earliest of these surviving drawings after Raphael (this one not, in fact, from the Stanze) is The Four Apostles from the Transfiguration, recently on the art market [Fig. 3] . Giordano rendered with rather poor approximation the four apostles at the very centre of the painting. The contours and shading are the bare essentials, but the painter seems to have understood the importance of the expressions. The drawing was probably done in 1650-51, the date of his first trip to Rome. After the Stanza della Segnatura we have another drawing, Fortitude, also offered for sale recently [Fig. 4] , in which the plump forms of women and putti are underlined with insisted contour. Even if, unfortunately, part of the outline and high light in white appears lost, the monumentality of the original is respected and the putti have the grace of the original. After the Stanza d’Eliodoro we have The Dream of Jacob (British Museum, London [Fig. 5]), understandably believed to be by Raphael and the most interesting drawing of the series. Here we have the complete representation of the fresco, with the background sketched with elegant, abbreviated lines and the main figures fully sculpted with great energy. Lastly, after the Logge we have the unfinished Baptism of Christ, (recently discovered at the Musée de Nancy), which also appears to belong, like the previous sheets, to the more mature crop of drawings executed around 1654. Giordano kept this last composition in mind and replicated it in a fresco of the same subject painted for S. Maria La Nova in 1655. Also, probably around 1655 he used it for a panel painting of The Baptism of Christ (now in the Baptistery of the Catedral Primada Santa Maria de Toledo [Fig. 6]), which is identical in composition to the fresco. Giordano completed his survey of the Raphaelesque works in the Vatican when he copied The Battle of Constantine twelve times – none of these drawings survive, but his first dated work, The Battle of Maxentius signed and dated 1651 and recently on the market, is an obvious derivation from it.

When we move from drawings to paintings inspired by Raphael we leap into a different territory of works of a much greater beauty. The Baptism of Christ (Catedral Primada Santa Maria de Toledo) is justly considered a major accomplishment, even when it was believed to be a forgery. In symmetry, simplicity of composition, grace of movement and gesture, it is a marvelous poetic fantasy. The draperies have the straight and angular quality of the Raphael that inspired it, but the soft volumes are typical of Giordano’s early work. The dense atmosphere and shadows also indicate an admiration for Sebastiano del Piombo, and the warm tonalities, in general, show an appreciation for the Venetian Renaissance. Equally remarkable is The Holy Family with St John (Museo del Prado, Madrid formerly San Ildefonso, La Granja, [Fig. 7]). The choice of a roundel, the frontal, harmonious grouping, the triangular scheme of the three main figures, the typical early sixteenth century style of depicting draperies sculpted on bodies and the fine halos are all pure Raphael. That Giordano took inspiration from different works known to him, but only in a very generalised way, while painting a truly Raphaelesque composition indicates that he knew Raphael by heart. The head of the Virgin is one of the most exquisite images inspired by Raphael painted by anyone. To complete this fine group of early Raphaelesque painting we must include The Holy Family with St. John, also in the Prado Madrid [Fig. 8], which is identical in style to The Baptism, with its sharp blue, dense shadows and landscape sketched in warm colours.

The problems of chronology mentioned above for some of the other neo-Renaissance works also applies to these paintings, which are very often dated later than they should be, probably because of their high quality. The roundel is dated generally around 1660, and the Baptism as late as 1680. But these paintings should not be taken out of context. Their simplicity and purity of line and colour are the same in all the other works of this group. Giordano would later abandon this purity of line and simplicity. The literal translation from Raphael’s work suggests an early date; and deceptive efforts (the false signature on The Baptism) can only be attributed to a very young painter. De Vito, noticing a similarity between The Baptism in Naples, dated 1655 and the picture in Toledo dates the latter painting to 1655 too. The three paintings are very similar to one another as they reflect Luca’s youthful enthusiasm for the classic and especially Renaissance masters. We believe that they should all be ascribed the same date. Later ‘Raphaelesque’ pictures (such as The Holy Family in the Museo del Prado, Madrid [Inv. P169]) are very different and more explicitly Giordanesque. The three paintings mentioned above may also be associated with the specific historical climate of Rome in the 1650s, when Giordano may have become aware of the revival of Raphael that characterized the work of Poussin at this time. He may also have been aware of a similar, contemporary revival of Venetian art evident in the work of Pier Francesco Mola. What attracted Giordano to Raphael in the 1650s was the compositional balance, the grace and gentle pathos of the figures, the smooth surfaces and the pure delicate colour. The Liberation can be seen to represent a more mature and ambitious approach to another work by the same artist.

When Raphael painted his fresco depicting The Liberation of St Peter in the Stanza d’Eliodoro [Fig. 2], he closely followed the Acts of the Apostles (12). In the center St.Peter is seen in prison, sleeping between two soldiers and bound with two chains, while the keeper and four groups of soldiers are seen outside. The angel appears before Peter radiating light. He smites and raises him and to the left Peter is depicted leaving the prison with the angel. The two phases of the story are combined rather incongruously. Raphael, undoubtedly attracted by the possibility of the effect of light in a nocturnal setting, devoted the whole left part of the fresco to the first scene with soldiers awakened by the light of the angel. He relegated the second part of the story to the right, disjoined from the first part by the architectural setting. Giordano, who did not feel constrained by the text, unified and simplified the composition. The liberation has already taken place. There is one single source of light. Figures move from the right towards the exit on the left. But like Raphael, Giordano depicts the soldiers as still being asleep on the right while on the left they are waking and moving (just as they are in the Vatican fresco) and the soldier on the extreme left has a gesture very similar to that of the corresponding figure in Raphael’s picture.

Raphael’s angel is distinguished by bright golden colours and encapsulated by the halo of light. Giordano’s angel is painted in tones of pink and a halo of light, but there are also differences. Giordano’s angel levitates, emphasized by the shadow cast on the ground by his foot, whereas Raphael’s angel walks with Peter and resembles him physically. Even more clearly than in the Vatican fresco, Giordano’s angel appears to belong to another more ethereal realm. Determined, yet sweet in mien, his beauty is masculine and feminine at the same time. As with Michelangelo’s Nudes in the Sistine Chapel, his mop of hair – here contrasted with the fine hair of Peter – symbolises youth and fullness of spirit. The supernatural is expressed not so much by the halo of light as by his poise and the splendour of the white and pink drapery. It is the angel that defines the centre of the composition itself and becomes the quintessence of the divine. This angel could have figured prominently in the exhibition of Neapolitan art at Yale in 1987 entitled A Taste for Angels!

In the lower part of Giordano’s painting the soldiers are shown in a style we might term as ‘Riberesque’, that is with a realism of traits and earthly colors characterized by sharp browns and greens. As he reformed Raphael’s angel, Giordano also reformed the Riberesque style of the soldiers by enlivening them with the glint of gleaming iron and soft modeling. He unified the lower section with the rest of the painting by harmonizing the colours and rendering the picture’s tonality in a way that totally differs from his prototypes in Ribera’s art.

Giordano liked to contrast the different modes of angels and soldiers, and this is where a similarity with the Berlin Gemäldegalerie St Michael [Fig. 9] is evident. In St Michael the demons and the saint are portrayed in two different styles. The lower section depicts the brutal world of the devils while above St. Michael is shown as a symbol of heaven with idealized features and a graceful swaying mantel and wings. The lower world, dark and grotesque, is rendered with Riberesque realism; the upper level, angelic and classical, has pale pastel tonalities, blue and pink imbued with Reni’s classicism. Andreas Haus has focused on this conflict of modes and the way in which the contrast between animal nature and spirituality is expressed through different styles. It is the same in The Liberation where an intense chiaroscuro effect points to the divide between the divine and reality. These two spheres are presented in different styles, Riberesque in the lower section and Reni-like in the angel. As in St Michael, the clothing of the angel in The Liberation appears to carry a special meaning, symbolizing the world of the spirit with elaborate folds and especially luminous colour.

De Dominici commented on Giordano’s memory saying that he was able to remember by heart Raphael’s composition. Giordano internalised Renaissance art to such a degree that the soldier seen on the left is foreshortened in a typically Raphaelesque manner. We do not know why or for whom he produced this painting but the finished work presents a heavenly, liberating presence in a dark and oppressive world and Giordano may have set out merely to convey this. In any case, he was inspired by Raphael and reformed the old master’s monumental masterpiece. He unified the parts and updated the language. In reforming Raphael Giordano created a work that would have been considered just as original as the prototype in the Vatican. With what Maria Loh calls ‘lateral thinking, which looked for shadows of the Father in the Son,’ that is with a knowledge of the necessary references, the viewer would have understood the imagery. Did Giordano exhibit some hubris in re-working a Raphael? By present standards it would appear so but the values of the seventeenth century were different from ours’. Carlo Maratta said of Giordano ‘he was the only Painter of his time, because God had given him a gift for creating, such as He had not given to Raphael’. Maratta did not hesitate to compare Giordano to Raphael, the Renaissance master he most admired.

The date of The Liberation must be the same as that of St. Michael, that is shortly after 1660. In the series of drawings and paintings leading up to The Liberation (first the copies, then the fakes/pastiches, then the mature works indicating emulation) we can see a logical sequence. Giordano’s rapport with the work of Raphael was sustained throughout his life. Even if he was focused on baroque visions, Giordano always bore in mind Raphael, as we can see in a variety of works inspired by him, among them the late Holy Family in the Museo del Prado Madrid, [Inv. P169], executed c. 1697, a few years prior to his death.


A confluence of circumstances made Giordano unique within the Neapolitan school and within the general seventeenth century panorama. His education, which was unstructured and dominated by a greedy, art dealing father who probably exploited his ability to imitate the style of others in order to make money must have been a formulating factor in his early years. In Naples, painters were often directly involved in the market. This may have favored a lax attitude towards ‘copying’ or manipulating originals. In addition, Giordano started out in Rome selling copies of paintings and frescoes by other artists to foreigners. A changing world of patronage had expanded from patrons, who were rulers and princes, or at least aristocratic nobility, to a wider merchant class. This public itself changed the role of the artist and Giordano met the challenge with his ability to provide a vast output. A certain degree of commercialization of the ‘product’ was affecting the arts in general. A significant indicator of what was happening and how the public conditioned the market can be seen in the production of operas in Venice in the 1650s, the same period when Giordano started painting . Just as Venetian theatres demanded an endless supply of new operas of a certain kind, Venetian collectors did not hesitate to demand from Giordano paintings ‘in the style of Ribera’. In seventeenth-century Naples new palaces were filled with vast numbers of paintings, the majority of which were copies, derivations or re-elaborations of other works. This did not necessarily debase the art of painting however but it actually offered the artist a greater range to exploit and allowed him to explore and show his intelligence when copying.

The time span in which Giordano operated was important in other ways. He spent much of the 1650s in Rome where not only were all the major artistic trends represented, but new petits maîtres from the northern Europe had arrived, subverting the established schools. It would have been easy for a young and very impressionable artist to be overwhelmed. Giordano’s life coincided with a moment when traditional regional schools of painting were challenged by new ideas and the art of confrontation of all the different schools became the main theme of many sessions at the French Académie des Beaux-Arts (founded in 1648) throughout the second half of the century.

One hypothesis, never previously pursued, is that of the influence of local tradition. The great Neapolitan poet Giambattista Marino had himself been a master of pastiche and had manipulated sources. Marino even expressed the belief, which Giordano would have appreciated, that Neapolitans are able to ‘steal’ in a particularly gracious manner. Marino was associated with theoretical controversy regarding imitation in the visual arts, and plagiarism in literature, arguing for and against his way of appropriating the work of other authors. It is acknowledged that Marinismo dominated a style of preaching throughout the seventeenth century, as we noted above. Another poet, a Sicilian transplanted to Naples, Giuseppe Artale , was slightly older than Giordano, and one of his closest friends. He was a follower of Marino (De Dominici calls him ‘The Second Marino’) and the author of poems collected in L’Alloro Fruttuoso. Artale was the inspiration for some important works by Giordano.

This is not, however, the whole story, as we must separate the work of Giordano’s youth from that of his maturity. When he was young, Giordano appeared unable, or unwilling, to make up his mind which of the main trends of the time would be the most suitable for him. He was attracted to all of them and this created the myth that he was a Protean who can paint in any style. The climax of this almost eclectic attitude came around 1664 when he created, in a very painterly style, Neapolitan altarpieces full of excitement and pathos as well as Youth Protected by Minerva (Städelsche Institut, Frankfurt) in a light, cool, Rubenesque vein. Simultaneously, in Venice, he created pictures with contrasting compositions in a Riberesque style with pitch-black backgrounds. This openness to stylised changeability appears related to his constant recourse to the many different sources of inspiration and their manipulation.

In time, however, his work became more decisive. After Venice (1664), even if some alternation between dark and light works persisted, the differing trends came together in what might be termed a variant of baroque classicism. He remained prone to bouts of ‘acutezza’, and in his mythological paintings of the 1670s and 1680s he quoted selectively from Michelangelo’s figures . But after the 1680s, influenced increasingly by Bernini and Baciccio, Giordano attained a style that absorbed him completely. In Spain in the 1690s, he painted some neo-Raphaelesque works, but excursions into other art forms became rarer and all fell within his dominant style.



Oil on canvas 2 x 37 cm 79 x 121 in
Oil on canvas

PROVENANCE: Mackenzie family since circa 185; thence by descent.


To be published in G.Scavizzi, The Young Giordano, 212

G. Scavizzi, Luca Giordano, his life and work, Naples, 2017, p. 128, no. 10, plates 30


EXHIBITED: Fawley Court and museum, Polish Congregation of the Marian Fathers 1953 – 28.

Where is It?
Acquired by The Toledo Art Museum 214
Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720
Religious: New Testament
Italian - Neapolitan
Price band
Sold or not available