On the wall below the design of Jacob's Dream, in the ceiling of this same Heliodorus Room, is the Liberation of Peter, painted above and on each side of a window. The story is taken from the Acts of the Apostles, Herod the king, as the narrative says, "stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also." The story of the imprisonment and liberation of Peter now follows:—

"And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quarternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people. Peter therefore was kept in prison; but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.

"And when Herod would have brought him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains; and the keepers before the door kept the prison. And behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison; and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, 'Arise up quickly.' And his chains fell off from his hands. And the angel said unto him, 'Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals.' And so he did. And he saith unto him, 'Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me.' And he went out, and followed him, and wist not that it was true which was done by the angel; but thought he saw a vision."[6]

[6] Acts of the Apostles, chapter xii., verses 4-9.

There is a succession of scenes in this story, and as the window runs up into the wall, it gave Raphael an opportunity to distribute the successive incidents in the three divisions thus formed. Over the window, accordingly, is the scene of the awakening of Peter. The angel, surrounded by a blaze of light, comes and smites the sleeping apostle on the side, but his action also indicates that he raises him and points to the door. Peter is shown bound by two chains, each fastening him to one of the soldiers, who are both asleep at their posts. The bars through which we see the scene are the prison bars.

At the right of the window, the angel is shown leading Peter past the guards, who are asleep on the steps. The prison is indicated by the thick wall and solid masonry, by the side of which the two figures are passing. The soldiers by their attitude show how sound asleep they are,—one stretched out at half length, trying to look as if he were awake, the other with his head fallen forward, and his hands clasped over his shield.

Vatican Palace, Rome

In both of these scenes, the apostle is marked by the sign of the nimbus, which we saw in the first picture, the Madonna of the Chair. But if you look narrowly, you will see that Raphael has added that other sign by which Peter is distinguished. He carries a great key. The reason is to be found in the words of our Lord to him as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, the sixteenth chapter and nineteenth verse. The key is a most fitting symbol here, for it seems to imply that the apostle is himself opening the gates of his prison house. The angel holds his hand, as an older person might lead a child in the dark. Peter is too dazed to know what has really happened.

On the left is depicted the moment when the guards are awakened and discover that their prisoner has escaped. It is an animated scene illustrating the simple words of the gospel narrative: "Now as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers, what was become of Peter." A man with a torch tells by his gesture that something extraordinary has happened, and the one whom he arouses shows by his face and his uplifted hand how startled he is; the light from the torch is too dazzling for another just awakened, and the last of all appears to be the one whom we saw asleep over his shield.

Even in this very inadequate copy of a great painting, we can see what is the noblest and most pervading beauty. It is the treatment of light. The angel appears in the compartment over the window in a blaze of light, and this light illuminates all the other figures. So it is in the right-hand division, and Peter especially shows it, for the side away from the angel is scarcely to be made out in the gloom. In the left-hand division, the torch, the moon struggling through the clouds, and the breaking of the dawn diffuse a light over the whole scene.

It is as if Raphael meant to make it clear that the supernatural light from the angel was brighter and more intense than the light which falls from natural means. Thus the Liberation of Peter, like the Expulsion of Heliodorus, keeps in mind the power of the divine over the human. Some have thought, besides, that Raphael had in his thought the recent delivery from captivity of Leo X., the Pope who succeeded Pope Julius II., for the decoration of the Heliodorus Room was done successively under these two popes.