Although unknown prior to its publication in 2011, this picture—a major addition to our knowledge of the young Ribera—can be traced back to 1644, when it was listed in the posthumous inventory of Cardinal Benedetto Monaldi Baldeschi (1588–1644) as "San Pietro in atto di contemplatione opera dello Spagnolettto con cornice tocca d’oro" (Saint Peter in the act of contemplation, the work of Spagnoletto). Cardinal Benedetto was the son of Mario Monaldi and Zenobia Ubaldi (the Ubaldi were a prominent family in Perugia). Upon his election as cardinal in 1633, he took the name of his uncle, Monsignor Francesco Baldeschi, who had played a key role in his ecclesiastical career. He either commissioned the picture directly from the artist during the time he spent in Rome, where he arrived in 1611 to study law and work with his uncle, or he purchased it there. In the latter case the painting may be one previously owned by Cardinal Scipione Cobelluzzi (1563–1626), in whose posthumous inventory is listed a "Quadro di S. Pietro che piange dello Spagnolo" (A painting of Saint Peter crying, by Spagnoletto; see Fausto Nicolai, "La collezione di quadri del cardinal Scipione Cobelluzzi," in Studi Romani, nos. 3–4, 2004, pp. 443, 452–53, 457). That picture was sold by the Jesuits who had inherited it (see Vanugli 2011, p. 398). In 1626 Benedetto succeeded his uncle as auditor of the Sacra Rota, the appellate tribunal of the Catholic Church. Subsequently, he was closely associated with Cardinal Antonio Barberini, accompanying him to Lombardy and Urbino in 1628 and 1631; he became bishop of Perugia in 1634 but served as papal legate to Bologna between 1634 and 1637. The painting remained with Cardinal Benedetto’s heirs in Perugia until its sale in 2012.
The picture shows Saint Peter, his hands clasped in prayer, his head directed heavenwards, his eyes reddened and filled with tears. The moment is after he denied being a disciple of Christ in the courtyard of the house of the High Priest: "and Peter remembered how Jesus had said, ‘Before the cock crows you will disown me three times.’ He went outside, and wept bitterly." (Matthew 26:75; Mark 14:66–72; Luke 22:55–62; John 18:17–18, 25–27) As Emile Mâle has explained in his classic L’Art religieux de la fin du XVIe siècle . . . , Paris, 1951, pp. 65-72, the subject became especially popular following the Council of Trent’s defense of penitence as a sacrament. Cardinal Bellarmine insisted that Peter’s tears were a form of confession. Contemporary devotional practices urged individuals to confront their personal sins through meditation on the lives of saints such as Peter and Mary Magdalen, who was also frequently shown weeping. The theme was popular in late-sixteenth and seventeenth-century religious poetry as well as in music: in 1594 Orlando Lassus composed a famous sequence of twenty madrigals, Le lagrime di San Pietro (The tears of Saint Peter), around poems by Luigi Tansillo (1510–1568) describing the stages of grief experienced by Saint Peter. El Greco had notably treated the theme, which Ribera also painted numerous times. This is his earliest and most ambitious formulation of the subject and was a clear precedent for his etching of 1621 (see Additional Images) as well as his depiction of the saint in a canvas presented in 1627 to the Colegiata of Osuna (near Seville, Spain) by the widow of the duke of Osuna. Next to Saint Peter, on a rock, are two keys, one gold and one silver. They are the keys to heaven and symbolize the authority Christ granted Peter, to "bind and to loose."
The picture has been dated to about 1612–13, which is to say, not long after the first documented presence of Ribera in Rome, where in August of 1612 he rented a house in via Leoncino (near the church of San Carlo al Corso). Shortly before, on July 11, he was paid in Parma for an altarpiece of Saint Martin and the Beggar for the church of San Prospero. It has been suggested that before working in Parma he had already spent time in Rome, arriving as early as 1608–9, or so it has been argued. According to Giulio Mancini, our primary source on early seventeenth century painting in Rome, upon arriving in Rome Ribera "worked for a daily wage for those who have workshops and sell paintings through the labors of similar young men," but went on to quickly establish his fame (see Considerazioni sulla pittura, ed. Adriana Marucchi, Rome, 1956, vol. I, p. 249). The reconstruction of the four years between 1612 and 1616, when he moved to Naples, is the result of a pioneering article by Gianni Papi that appeared in the Italian periodical Paragone in 2002. In that article Papi identified as by the young Ribera a group of canvases previously ascribed to an anonymous artist known as the Master of the Judgment of Solomon, after a work of that subject in the Galleria Borghese, Rome. These, he argued, preceded a series of canvases illustrating the five senses that are mentioned by Mancini and that, following their identification, had constituted the starting point for a reconstruction of Ribera’s career; they had been painted for a Spanish collector—now identified as Pedro Cosida, financial agent to the king of Spain—just before Ribera departed for Naples. Papi’s thesis was subsequently put to the test in three successive exhibitions held in the Palazzo Reale, Milan (2005) and the Museo del Prado, Madrid and the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples (2011–12). Although not all of the pictures proposed by Papi are accepted by all scholars (see, for example, Salomon, "The Young Ribera" in Burlington Magazine 153 (2011), pp. 475–78), the core group is now firmly established. It is with one of the key pictures of that group—a Liberation of Saint Peter in the Galleria Borghese, Rome—that the present canvas can best be compared. Indeed, the same male model may have been employed. The Metropolitan’s picture is unusual among Ribera’s early work for its outdoor setting and the inclusion of the sky and foliage in the upper right corner. This was unquestionably an idea Ribera took from the work of Caravaggio: the first version of his altarpiece of the Conversion of Saint Paul (Odescalchi Collection, Rome) and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome). The shaft of light illuminating the face of the saint and accentuating the pattern of folds—of extraordinary expressive power—is no less indebted to Caravaggio. With the recovery of this early phase, Ribera has emerged as the dominant figure for the history of Caravaggesque painting in Italy as well as in Spain, where Velázquez, for example, must have had occasion to study his paintings. The Tears of Saint Peter thus assumes an important place in the history of painting in the decade after Caravaggio’s death in 1610.
X-rays (see Additional Images) have revealed that Ribera painted the figure of Saint Peter over a composition of the Virgin and Child with, probably, Saint Anne. The figures in the earlier composition were smaller in scale and have been laid in with broad brushstrokes and ample use of white in the faces—a technique notably different from that used in painting the Saint Peter. Whether or not the earlier composition was also painted by Ribera or whether he was using an unfinished and discarded canvas by another painter, turning the canvas 180 degrees, cannot be said at this time.