Raphael, 'The Miraculous Draught of Fishes'
Bodycolour over charcoal underdrawing on paper, mounted on canvas
Height 319 cm x width 399 cm
On loan from HM Queen Elizabeth II; rcin 912944
'And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the Lake of Gennesaret. And saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets. And he entered into one of the ships, which was Simon's and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. And he sat down, and taught the people out of the ship. Now when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taking nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net. And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake. And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken: And so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners unto Simon. And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not: from henceforth thou shalt catch men. And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him.'
According to the Gospel of St. Luke, Christ chooses the poor fishermen Simon, Peter and Andrew as his first Apostles. They have been fishing unsuccessfully in the Sea of Galilee when Christ appears and tells Peter to let down his nets into deep water. They make a miraculous catch, so that their boats overflow with fish. In another boat James and John struggle to pull up a net with a huge catch, while their father Zebedee tries to keep the vessel steady. Peter recognizes Christ as a holy man and kneels before him in an attitude of prayer, while Andrew steps forward with his hands spread in amazement at the miracle. A consecutive chain of action runs across this balanced composition to culminate in the figure of Christ, who calmly raises his hand in blessing. On the distant shore the faithful gaze and point at the miraculous events.
The story refers to Peter's role as a 'fisher of men', who converts others to Christianity. It also demonstrates his humility as he kneels before Christ to confess his sinfulness. Since early Christian times the Church had been personified as a ship, and fish were traditional symbols for Christ and Christian piety. Here, they may also represent souls that have been saved (taken up in Peter's nets), in contrast to the discarded shellfish that are being picked over by the cranes in the foreground.
This is a very important episode in the history of the Church. Peter, the humble fisherman, was Christ's first apostle and he was, along with Paul, one of the founders of the Roman church. The popes were considered successors of Peter in his office as Christ's representative on earth. Leo was eager to emphasise the legitimacy of papal succession by including key episodes in the lives of Peter and Paul in the Sistine tapestries.