Icon of St. Peter
"When you look at an icon, the icon looks back," notes a recent exhibition catalogue of icons from the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, where the largest collection of Byzantine icons is preserved.
Although this is not really true of this life-sized bust of St. Peter on the Dumbarton Oaks icon, who does not gaze at the beholder, the painting shows a striking degree of physical reality, and hence presence. Slightly turned to his left, St. Peter holds two attributes in his left hand, a scroll and a staff surmounted by a black-metallic cross. The very tip of his outstretched right forefinger effectively overlaps the scroll and points upward to the cross of his martyrdom. The most unusual and unparalleled feature is the keys worn on a chain around his neck and painted with remarkable details.
The superb quality of the painting on this icon, the subtle modeling of the physiognomy, the intensity of emotional expression, and the elaborate depiction of the fabric of the tunica and pallium find hardly any parallel in Byzantine icon painting in the thirteenth century. It can be compared with the naturalistic style and the strong appreciation of corporeal values found in the frescoes that decorate the thirteenth-century churches of Mileseva and Sopocani.
St. Peter and St. Paul were already typified and individualized in the fourth century. The hairstyle of the apostle in our icon differs from the established Roman tradition and belongs to the Byzantine Orthodox world, where a number of variants of the western "archetype" were developed.
Comparisons with other large-scale Peter icons make it obvious that St. Peter was paired with an icon of St. Paul, both images presumably integrated into a series of other icons on an iconostasis.