The elements most abundant in this piece are that of color, light and shadow, and space. These are the primary elements most apparent, though other elements are present in the painting as well. This particular piece is not so concerned with incorporating background into telling the story, as it is blurred and somewhat distorted. The concentration of the piece is directed to the figures presented in the painting and the story being depicted.
The use of light and shadow are what catches the viewer’s eye first as the face of St. Peter and the woman are illuminated by what is said to be a fireplace in the background, though not in view. This effect gives the idea that these are the two most important figures in the painting and the story revolves around these two figures. The figure of the soldier seems to be relatively less important due to the fact that the apparent fireplace only illuminates the back of the armor of which he is wearing.
The detail of the soldier’s face is hidden in his own shadow and is only outlined by the reflective light from the face of the woman, further demonstrating his importance. The light aids in the telling of the story as one can see that the woman’s eyes are facing the soldier while she points at St. Peter indicating that she is telling the soldier of St. Peter’s misdoings. The light works to show the expression on St. Peter’s face, as he appears to be defending himself against the accusation being made.
The use of color establishes the mood and represents the figures character. Collectively, the colors used are dark, seemingly representing mild silence or discreteness, or melancholy. This use of dark colors surrounds the three characters and incorporates the aforementioned emotions into the story being told. The colors on the figures themselves seem to display the nature of the characters being depicted. The soldier contains a fiery red on his arm and dark brown and black on his armor, probably representative of his violent or aggressive nature. The woman is veiled with white around her face and shoulders, perhaps to show that she is pure hearted, honest, and principled. St. Peter’s figure is filled with blue and white perhaps to show his honest nature as well.
These contrasting shades of color help to bring the picture into focus.
Finally, space sharpens the viewer’s focus and directs attention to the matter at hand. As stated previously, the background is blurred and distorted bringing one’s attention to the detail of the figures contained in the painting. Due to the fact that the figures occupy almost all of the painting, the viewer is somehow involved with what is happening. One may almost feel as if he or she is the fourth witness of the accusations against St. Peter. What makes this possible, which is also so clever about Caravaggio’s piece is that it is so lifelike in that it replicates how the human eye focuses on something.
For example, if one has a conversation with another person, one may notice that the background is blurred due to the concentration on that person and only the torso is in view. The same effect is present in the painting, which involves the viewer. The painting is not necessarily cramped, because the background is virtually free of possessing any objects such as furniture, tables, etc. Instead, one gets the feeling of an open room or area but an extreme closeness to the figures.
When all these elements are combined, the viewer becomes engulfed by the painting and apart of the story being depicted. Immediately, one is drawn to the woman and St. Peter as the light from the fireplace illuminates their facial expressions. The color of the background and the figures also demand attention as the mood is set and the character of the figures is revealed. Finally, space brings all the elements together and confines the viewer into “The Denial of St. Peter.”