Poetry and music from the sixteenth century imagining the sorrow of St. Peter in recognizing his betrayal of Jesus
“When noble Peter, who had sworn that
midst a thousand spears and a thousand swords
he would die beside his beloved Lord,
saw that, overcome by cowardice, his faith
had failed him in his great moment of need,
the grief and shame, and contrition
for his own failure and Christ’s suffering,
pierced his breast with a thousand darts.”
So opens the 42-stanza poem by Luigi Tansillo (1510–1568), Lagrime di San Pietro,“Tears of Saint Peter.” Originally published in 1560, portions of this eloquent expression of grief were set to music — in a set of 21 haunting “spiritual madrigals” — by Orlande de Lassus (1530–1594).
The moment at the center of the poem is an imagined one: what if Jesus had looked Peter in the eye immediately in the moment following the latter’s betrayal?
“Three times had he sworn
— to the bold, insistent maid, to the servant,
and to the cruel throng — that he had never been
a follower of his Lord, nor did he know him;
then the persistent rooster announced the day,
called to bear witness;
and now aware of his great failure,
Peter looked at Christ and their eyes met.”
The response to the accusation in the eyes of Jesus is a torrent of tears.
“Like a snowflake which, having lain frozen
and hidden in deep valleys all winter,
and then in springtime, warmed by the sun,
melts and flows into streams;
thus the fear which had lain like ice
in Peter’s heart and made him repress the truth,
now that Christ turned His eyes on him,
melted and was changed into tears.”
You can read the text to this work and listen to a performance of it on this page at Cantica sacra, the website I edit as part of my work as music director in my parish. I have also written about this work, and about some penetential Psalm settings by Lassus, for Touchstone. You may read that column — “Eloquent Lamentation” — here.