Images of Medieval Art and Architecture

Saint Peter

General Information


Saint's Day - June 29

Attributes- Keys

Text from The Lives of the Saints
by Rev. S. Baring-Gould
New and Revised Edition.
Edinburgh; John Grant:, 1914.  
Volume 12, Pages 467-70

Headings added by Jane Vadnal

Early Life

The great prince of the Apostles was born at Bethsaida. The particular time of his birth cannot be ascertained, but he was probably at least ten years older than his Divine Master. His original name was Simon. He was the son of a man named Jonas, (Matthew xvi, 27, John I.43 xxi,16) and was brought up in his father's occupation, a fisherman on the sea of Tiberias. He and his brother Andrew were partners of SS. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who had hired servants; and from various indications in the sacred narrative, we are led to the conclusion that their social position brought them into contact with men of education. The apostle did not live as a mere laboring man, in a hut by the sea-side, but first at Bethsaida, and afterwards in a house at Capernaum, belonging to himself or to his mother-in-law. That he was an affectionate husband, married in early life to a wife who accompanied him in his apostolic journeys, are facts inferred from Scripture, while very ancient traditions, recorded by S. Clement of Alexandria and by other earlier, but less trustworthy writers, inform us that her name was Perpetua, that she bore him a daughter, named Petronilla, and perhaps other children. Petronilla is numbered among the saints (May 3Ist.)

Calling of Saint Peter

S. Peter was probably about the age of thirty-five or forty at the date of his call. That call was preceded by a special preparation. He and his brother Andrew, together with their partners SS. James and John, were disciples of S. John the Baptist, (John i. 35) and were in attendance upon him when they were first summoned by Christ. This first call led to no immediate change in S. Peter's external position. He and his fellow disciples do not seem to have immediately followed Christ as His regular disciples. They returned to Capernaum, where they pursued their usual business, waiting for a further intimation of the will of God. The second call is recorded by SS. Matthew, Mark, and Luke; the first call only by S. John.

It took place on the see of Galilee, near Capernaum, where the four disciples, SS;. Peter, Andrew, James and John, were fishing. SS. Peter and Andrew were first called.

Peter's Place among the Apostles

Our Lord then entered Simon Peter's boat and addressed the multitude on the shore. Immediately after that call, Our Lord went to the house of S. Peter, where He wrought the miracle of healing on the step-mother of the apostle, who was lying sick of fever. S. Peter then followed Christ closely, and was in constant attendance on Him in Galilee, Decapolis, Peraea and Judaea. The special designation of S. Peter and the rest of the apostles took place some time afterwards. (Matthew x.204, Mark iii.13-9,Luke vi. 13) They appear then first to have received formally the name of Apostles, and from that time Simon bore publicly, and as it would seem all but exclusively, the name Peter which had hitherto been used rather as a characteristic appellation than as a proper name. From this time S. Peter held the chief place among the twelve. The precedence did not depend on priority of call, it seems hardly probable that it depended on seniority. Some special designation by Christ alone accounts in a satisfactory way for the facts, that he is named first in every list of the apostles, is generally addressed by our Lord as their representative, and on the most solemn occasions speaks in their name

The distinction S. Peter thus received seems to have brought out a natural impetuosity and tendency to presumption, calling down on him the strongest reproof ever addressed to a disciple by our Lord.( Matthew xvi.23 Mark viii.32)

Peter's role in the Passion of Christ

Towards the close of our Lord's ministry, S. Peter's characteristics became especially prominent. At the last supper, S. Peter seems to have been particularly earnest in the request that the traitor might be pointed out. After the supper his words drew out the meaning of the significant, sacramental act of our Lord in washing His disciples' feet. Then too it was that he made those repeated protestations of unalterable fidelity, so soon to be falsified by his miserable fall. On the morning of the Resurrection we have proof that S. Peter, though humble, was not crushed by his fall. He and S. John were the first to visit the sepulcher; he was the first who entered it. We are told by S. Luke and by S. Paul that Christ appeared to him first among the apostles. It is observable, however, that on that occasion he is called by his original name Simon, not Peter; the higher designation was not restored until he had been publicly re-instituted, so to speak, by his master. That re-institution took place at the sea of Galilee,(S. John xxi) an event of the very highest import. Slower than S. John to recognize their Lord, S. Peter was the first to reach him; he brought the net to land. The thrice repeated questions of Christ, referring doubtless to the three protestations and denials, were thrice met by answers full of love and faith. He then received the formal commission to feed Christ's sheep, as one who had forfeited his place, and could not resume it without such an authorization. Then followed the prediction of his martyrdom in which he was to find the fulfillment of his request to be permitted to follow the Lord. With this event closes the first part of S. Peter's history. Henceforth, he with his colleagues were to establish and govern the Church founded by their Lord, without the support of His presence.

Peter and the early Church

The first part of the Acts of the Apostles is occupied by the record of transactions, in nearly all of which S. Peter stands forth as the recognized leader of the apostles. S. Peter is the most prominent person in the greatest event after the resurrection, when on the day of Pentecost the Church was first invested with the plenitude of gifts and powers. The first miracle after Pentecost was wrought by him. This first miracle of healing was soon followed by the first miracle of judgment. S. Peter was the minister in that transaction. He is not especially named in connection with the appointment of deacons, an important step in the organization of the Church; but when the Gospel was first preached beyond the precincts of Judea, he and S. John were at once sent by the apostles to confirm the converts at Samaria. Henceforth he remains prominent, but not exclusively prominent, among the propagators of the gospel. At Samaria he was confronted with Simon Magus the first teacher of heresy. About three years later we have two accounts of the first meeting of S. Peter and S. Paul. This interview was followed by other events marking S. Peter's position-a general apostolic tour of visitation to the churches hitherto established in the course of which two great miracles on Aeneas and Tabitha were wrought, and his connection with the most signal event after the day of Pentecost-the baptism of Cornelius. That was the crown and consummation of S. Peter's ministry. The establishment of a Church in great part of Gentile origin at Antioch, and the mission of S. Barnabas, between whose family and S. Peter there were the bonds of near intimacy, set the seal upon the work thus inaugurated by S. Peter. This transaction was soon followed by the imprisonment of our apostle. His miraculous deliverance marks the close of this second great period of his ministry.

Mission to the Jews

He left Jerusalem, but it is not said where he went. Six years later we find him once more at Jerusalem, when the apostles and elders came together to consider the question whether converts should be circumcised. S. Peter took the lead in that discussion, and urged with remarkable cogency the principles settled in the case of Cornelius. His arguments, adopted and enforced by S. James, decided that question at once and for ever. It is a disputed point whether the meeting between S. Paul and S. Peter, of which we have an account in the Galatians (ii. I-I0) took place at this time. The great majority of critics believe that it did, and this hypothesis, though not without difficulties, seems more probable than any other which has been suggested. The only point of real importance was certainly determined before the apostles separated, the work of converting the Gentiles being henceforth specially entrusted to S. Paul and S. Barnabas, while the charge of preaching to the circumcision was assigned to the elder apostles, and more particularly to S. Peter.(Gal ii.7)

This arrangement cannot, however, have been an exclusive one. S. Paul always addressed himself first to the Jews in every city. S. Peter and his old colleagues admitted and sought to make converts among the Gentiles. It may have been in full force only when the old and new apostles resided in the same city. Such at least was the case at Antioch, where S. Peter went soon afterwards. There a painful collision took place between the two apostles. From this time until the date of his first Epistle, we have no distinct notices in Scripture of S. Peter's abode or work.

Founding of early churchs in Corinth, Antioch and Rome

S. Peter was probably employed for the most part in building up, and completing the organization of Christian communities in Palestine and the adjoining districts. There is, however, strong reason to believe that he visited Corinth at an early period. The name of S. Peter as founder, or joint founder, is not associated with any local Church, save those of Corinth, Antioch and Rome, by early ecclesiastical tradition. That of Alexandria may have been established by S. Mark after S. Peter's death. That S. Peter preached the Gospel in the countries of Asia, mentioned in his first Epistle, appear from Origen's own words to be a mere conjecture. From that Epistle, however, it is inferred by some that towards the end of his life, S. Peter visited, or resided for some time at Babylon, which at that time, and for some hundreds of years afterwards, was a chief seat of Jewish culture. S. Peter is, however, said to have founded the Church in Rome about the second year of the emperor Claudius. At his first arrival, he devoted himself chiefly to the Jews, his countrymen; who, ever since the time of Augustus, had dwelt in the region beyond the Tiber. But when afterwards he began to preach to the Gentiles, tradition says that he changed his lodging, and was taken into the house of one Pudens, a senator, lately converted to the faith. Here he is said to have met with the celebrated Jew Philo, who had lately come on his second embassy to Rome, on behalf of his countrymen at Alexandria; and to have contracted an intimate friendship and acquaintance with him.

After S. Peter had been several years at Rome, the emperor Claudius, taking advantage of some seditions and tumults raised by the Jews, by a public edict banished them out of Rome. But the evidence in favor of this first visit to Rome is not altogether satisfactory.

Peter's encounter with Simon Magus

It is related that towards the latter end of the reign of the emperor Nero, S. Peter returned to Rome, where he found the minds of the people strangely bewitched and hardened against embracing Christianity, by the subtleties and magical arts of Simon Magus, whom he had formerly confounded at Samaria, when that wretched man sought to purchase the gifts of the Holy Ghost with money, as is related in the Acts of the Apostles. This Simon was born at Gitton, a village of Samaria, was bred up in the arts of sorcery and divination, and it is pretended succeeded in performing many marvels; insomuch that he was generally regarded by the Samaritans as some great deity come down from heaven. But on his discovery and discomfiture by S. Peter at Samaria, he left the East, and fled to Rome. There, according to a tradition preserved by Eusebius, by means of witchcraft and sorceries, he insinuated himself into the favor of the people, and at last became very acceptable to the emperors themselves, insomuch that the highest honor and veneration was paid him. Justin Martyr asserts that he was honored as a Divinity; that a statue was erected to him in the Insula Tiberina, between two bridges, with this inscription: " Simoni Deo Sancto"-"to Simon the holy God ;" and that the Samaritans generally, and very many of other nations, did own and worship him as their principal Deity. But this incident will not bear close investigation. The statue was one of the Sabine god Simo Sancus, so that the inscription meant merely " to the god Simo Sancus." Under this title the Sabines, Umbrians, and Romans, adored the God of Light. He had a temple in the Quirinal, and another on that island in the Tiber where the statue was, which Justin Martyr supposed was the image of Simon Magus.(Preller, Les Dieux de l'Ancienne Rome p 424 et seq.)

The following legend of the encounter of S. Peter with Simon, may interest those who care for stories purely apocryphal:-

Simon is said to have been highly in favor with Nero, who was a great patron of magicians and all who maintained secret ways of commerce with the infernal powers. With him S. Peter thought fit in the first place to encounter; and to undeceive the people, by discovering the impostures wrought by this miserable man. There was at that time a young man of eminence and a kinsman of the emperor lately dead. The fame of the power of S. Peter for raising persons to life persuaded the friends of the youth to call for the Apostle; others contrived that Simon Magus should be fetched. Simon, glad of the opportunity to magnify himself before the people, proposed to S. Peter that if he (Simon) raised the nobleman to life, then Peter, who had so injudiciously provoked the "great power of God " (as he styled himself), should lose his life; but, if S. Peter prevailed, he himself would submit to the same fate and sentence. S. Peter accepted the terms, and Simon began his charms and incantations; whereupon the dead young man seemed to move his hand. The people that stood by then exclaimed that he was alive, and that he talked with Simon, and began to attack S. Peter for daring to oppose himself to so great a power. The Apostle entreated their patience, told them that this was but a delusion of their senses, and that if Simon were but taken from the bed-side, his appearance of revival would disappear; and when Simon was accordingly removed, the corpse remained without the least sign of motion. S. Peter then, standing at a good distance from the bed, silently made his address to God, and then, before them all, commanded the young man in the Name of the Lord Jesus to arise; he immediately did so, spoke, walked, and ate, and was, by S. Peter restored to his mother. The people who saw this, suddenly changed their opinion, and fell] upon the magician with intent to stone him. But S. Peter begged his life, and told them that it would be a sufficient punishment to him to live and see that, in despite of all his power and malice, the kingdom of Christ would increase and flourish. The magician was maddened by this defeat; and vexed to see the triumph of the Apostle, mustered up all his powers, summoned the people, told them that he was offended at the Galileans, whose protector and guardian he had been, and therefore promised that on a certain day they should see him fly up to heaven. At the time appointed he went up the mount of the Capitol, and, throwing himself from the top of the rock, began his flight. This sight caused great wonder and amazement among the people, and they shouted that this must be wrought by the power of God, and not of man. But S. Peter, standing in the crowd, prayed to our Lord, that the people might be undeceived, and that the vanity of the impostor might be discovered in such a way that he himself might be sensible of it. Immediately the wings which Simon had made himself, began to fail him, and he fell to the ground, miserably bruised and wounded by the fall; and having been carried thence to a neighboring village, he soon afterwards died. This event no sooner came to the ears of the emperor, to whom, as has been already said, Simon had endeared himself by wicked artifices, than it became an occasion of hastening S. Peter's destruction. This is all mere fable.

Peter's Death

The fact of the imprisonment and death of S. Peter we have on far higher authority than worthless legend. Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, quotes a writer Caius, born in the time of Zephyrinus, bishop of Rome (202-2I8) who says " I can shew the trophies of the apostle. For if you will go to the Vatican, or to the Ostian road, you will find the trophies of those who have laid the foundation of this Church." And that both suffered martyrdom about the same time, we learn from Dionysius, bishop of Corinth (A.D. I78), who gives the following testimony quoted by Eusebius, "You Romans, by means of this admonition, have mingled the flourishing seed that had been planted by Peter and Paul at Rome and Corinth. For both of these having planted us at Corinth, likewise instructed us; and having in like manner taught in Italy, they suffered martyrdom about the same time." Eusebius adds that S. Peter was crucified, and S. Paul was beheaded, under the emperor Nero.

The story of the death of S. Peter is, however, related in the apocryphal " Acts of S. Peter," falsely attributed to his disciple, S. Linius, as follows:-Nero ordered S. Peter and S. Paul to be confined in the Mamertine prison, where they spent their time in the exercises of religion, and especially in preaching to the prisoners, and those who resorted to them, and to baptize whom, S. Peter elicited water from the prison wall, by striking it.

When the day of their execution approached, the Christians in Rome urged S. Peter, most earnestly, to escape. He resisted their importunities for long, but at length, moved by their tears, he got over the wall of the prison, and fled. But as he approached the gate of the city, he met our Blessed Lord, bearing His cross, just entering. " Lord, whither goest Thou ?" asked the astonished apostle. " I go to be crucified in Rome afresh." S. Peter was smitten to the heart, and with many tears returned and delivered himself into the hands of his keepers, shewing himself thenceforth most ready and cheerful to submit to the Divine Will. The little church of " Domine Quo Vadis ?" is believed to stand on the spot sanctified by this reported mysterious meeting. Before his suffering, S. Peter was, doubtless, scourged, according to the usual custom of the Romans in dealing with criminals condemned to capital punishment. Having saluted his brethren, and especially having bidden his last farewell to S. Paul, he was brought out of the prison, and led to the top of the Vatican Mount, the place designed for his execution. The death to which he was condemned was crucifixion, being of all others accounted the most shameful as well as the most severe and terrible. But he entreated the favor of the officers that he might not be crucified in the ordinary way, but might suffer with his head downwards and his feet up to heaven, affirming that he was unworthy to suffer in the same posture wherein his Lord had suffered before him. " Happy man," says S. Chrysostom, " to be set in the readiest posture of traveling from earth to heaven." His body, after having been taken down from the cross, is said to have been embalmed by Marcellinus the Presbyter, after the Jewish manner, and was then buried in the Vatican, near the Triumphal Way. Over his grave a small church was soon after erected, which, being destroyed by Heliogabalus, his body was removed to the cemetery in the Appian Way, two miles from Rome, where it remained till the time of Cornelius, bishop of Rome, who re-conveyed it to the Vatican. Here it rested somewhat obscurely until the reign of Constantine, who, out of the great reverence which he had for the Christian religion, caused many churches to be built at Rome, but especially rebuilt and enlarged the Vatican in honor of S. Peter. In doing this the emperor himself is said to have dug the first spade-grafts of the foundation, and to have carried from the trench twelve baskets of rubbish with his own hands, in honor of the twelve apostles. He enriched the church with a great number of gifts and ornaments.


The genuine writings of S. Peter are his two Epistles which make up part of his Sacred Canon; besides these there were other writings anciently ascribed to him, but which have been rejected by the Fathers as spurious, though some of these are edifying in themselves, and were in early times read publicly in the churches.


The reputed relics of S. Peter are numerous. The house of Caiphas was turned into a church by S. Helena, before it was a broken pillar on which the cock stood which crowed and called S. Peter to repentance. This pillar was removed to Rome, and long stood in the Lateran church, but as this was calculated " rather to produce a smile than conduce to devotion, especially among heretics, it pleased Innocent X., when restoring that basilica in I650, to remove it from sight, together with certain other things." The altar on which S. Peter said mass, in the house of S. Pudentiana, is now shown in the church of S. Peter ad Vincula, at Rome. Another altar in the l ateran. In the church of SS. Peter and Paul, on the Via Sacra, is exhibited a stone impressed with the knees of S. Peter, when praying to confound the arts of Simon Magus, and anciently also the stone on which the sorcerer fell, sprinkled with his blood.

In the little chapel on the spot where Christ met S. Peter, and the apostle asked, " Domine quo vadis ?" are shewn the impression on stone of the Savior's feet. In the Mamertine prison is also exhibited the stone on which S. Peter laid his head, and which bears the impress, and the chink through which the water gushed for the baptism of his converts. There also is the pillar to which the apostles were tied to be scourged, and that to which S. Peter was chained. The chains are preserved in the church Ad Vincula, and links of them in a great number of churches throughout Europe. The wooden chair of S. Peter is in the Vatican. A chair, said to have been the Antiochian throne of the apostle, is exhibited at Venice, but the learned Assemain discovered on it an Arabic inscription, and found it was made of the tombstone of a Caliph. The sword of S. Peter, wherewith he cut off the ear of Malchus, was anciently preserved at Constantinople; the cap of S. Peter, covered with elaborate medieval embroidery, is preserved at Namus. Part of the cloak of the prince of the apostles at Prague, his stick at Treves; the sword wherewith S. Paul was decapitated at Toledo. The bodies of SS Peter and Paul are in the great church of S. Peter at Rome.

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Updated by Jane Vadnal, July, 1998