Written by Therese Möllenhoff
“The Martyrdom of Saint Peter” is part of Damien Hirst’s series of instrument cabinets, more precisely one of the Apostle Cabinets. These can be viewed as an extension of the medicine cabinets Hirst began to construct as a student at Goldsmiths College in London in the late 1980s. For his graduating exhibition in 1989 he showed four medicine cabinets for the first time, which were filled with various empty medicine packages. He allegedly drew the inspiration for these from “Hoovers”, the Jeff Koons series of vacuum cleaners in illuminated Plexiglas display cases, among other places. When Hirst created these medicine cabinets this proved to be a decisive factor in combining his interests in the artistic principles of collage, readymades and minimalism with a conceptual complex of themes connected with medicine and science – an approach that would become a recurrent theme in his artistic production. After the medicine cabinets he constructed a number of instrument cabinets, in which medical equipment was elaborately organised in clinical steel and glass cases. It was at the exhibition Romance in the Age of Uncertainty in 2003 that Hirst presented his series of sculptural Apostle Cabinets for the first time. These represented the death and martyrdom of each of the twelve disciples of Jesus, and included “The Martyrdom of Saint Peter”.
In the Apostle Cabinet series Hirst progressed from the formal organisation of objects in the cabinets, which had been his approach until then, to a defined series of 13 cabinets – one for each disciple and one for Jesus – each of which conveys a specific narrative through its visual design. In the Apostle Cabinets the various objects hold a content of meaning that symbolises the history of each apostle’s martyrdom, combined with scientific laboratory equipment such as flasks and test tubes. “The Martyrdom of Saint Peter” is based on the story of the apostle Peter. The design and content of the cabinet symbolise key events in his life. The most conspicuous feature of the cabinet is that it is turned the wrong way around so that all the objects and glassware on the shelves are hanging upside-down. This is a reference to how Peter confronted his death by insisting that he should be crucified upside-down out of respect for Jesus. In the glass panel on the front of the cabinet three circular holes can be seen – one at the top centre, and two at the bottom, one on each side. Together they form the Cross of St Peter, the reversed Latin cross, upon which the apostle Peter was crucified. The holes are surrounded by dried rivulets of blood, and thus function as stigmata signifying the fate of the apostle.
The objects in the cabinet also refer to Peter’s unique story. Three blood-soaked nails lie in one of the many glasses, a gruesome reminder of how the apostle, like Jesus, was nailed to the cross through his hands and feet. Along with an upside-down wooden cross and a hammer, these objects bear witness to Peter’s dramatic crucifixion. They display a bloodier and ghastlier version of his martyrdom than the stylised version of the crucifixion we often see, such as on the rosary that is hanging on the third shelf of the cabinet. A picture of a rooster can be seen in the middle of the cabinet. This refers to the night before Jesus was crucified, when he predicted that Peter would disown him three times before the rooster crowed. When the rooster crowed the following morning, Peter realised that he had, indeed, denied Jesus three times. Another of Peter’s most prominent and characteristic hallmarks, keys, can also be seen in the cabinet. According to the Gospels, Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and art history is replete with portrayals of St Peter holding these keys. In Hirst’s cabinet these traditionally large and imposing keys have been replaced by a modern bunch of keys that nevertheless symbolise those of Peter – one gold, for the kingdom of heaven, and one silver, for the papacy. As in several of Hirst’s works, the body of the person being “portrayed” is missing, being suggested only through props and symbols. A book can be seen in the cabinet which at first glance cannot be placed among the usual items associated with St Peter’s martyrdom. The title and author are listed on the spine of the book: The Nothing That Is, by Robert Kaplan. The full title of the book is The Nothing That Is – A Natural History of Zero, and it is a book of mathematics about the existence of the number zero, or naught. Not only does the title echo the name Hirst used for one of his series, Natural History, but the title The Nothing That Is can also be open to interpretations in both a scientific and a more spiritual sense. The book is not only mathematical and scientific, but traces the very idea of “zero” throughout history and points out that when a symbol is created as the representation of an idea, the symbol itself becomes the source of new ideas – a thought that resonates in Hirst’s work. With its combination of scientific props and religious symbols, the symbolic effect of this work becomes a combination of medicine’s efforts to challenge or postpone death with religion’s promise of a life after death, united in the form of the artwork and its ability to render its subject as eternal and immortal.