'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
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.