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The Subtle Meat Cleaver

Reflections on a portrait by Lorenzo Lotto

By Veronica S. Wickline

On Friday, I took a spur of the moment trip to the Fogg Museum’s second floor. I was looking for something important to stare at, passing from room to room, and I was in the middle of walking right past two late Renaissance pieces thinking, “As if we don’t already have enough portraits of white men at Harvard!” when a meat cleaver peaking out from a monk’s skull caught me off guard.

I came in close to verify what I was seeing. Yup, a meat cleaver. Reading the placard, I learned that this was a portrait by Lorenzo Lotto of Friar Angelo Ferretti, who was posing as Saint Peter of Verona. This saint, known more frequently as Saint Peter Martyr, was a particularly impassioned public speaker who travelled dispelling heresies such as Catharism in his time. He was travelling home to Milan in 1252 when a Cathar assassin plunged his meat cleaver into St. Peter’s skull.

Some more fun facts about this piece: In 1923, restorations revealed the very meat cleaver of which I speak, which had been painted over by an aptly-named “squeamish collector.” The corners of the canvas had also been folded over, obscuring the faint red lettering that now can be seen in the bottom right: “Credo in unum deum”—I believe in one God—the first words of the Nicene Creed, which Saint Peter Martyr allegedly scribbled out in his blood as he lay dying.

I find the collector’s revisions to be absolutely hilarious. By removing these two features from the painting, this art aficionado completely diluted the painting’s message. The meat cleaver and red lettering serve as the first and last items in a vertical scan of the piece. Reading the image from top to bottom goes something like this:

“Huh, is that a meat cleaver in his head? Oh wow, there’s a dagger in his chest…very violent…I guess that was a meat cleaver. But why are there so many weapons lodged in his—Oh, is that like a hymnal in his hand? And the other hand is pointing at something near the bottom…'Credo in unum deum.' Well, I guess that’s why he took a giant knife to the head. What do I think about that?”

By painting over the butcher’s tool and folding away the words, someone somewhere robbed this painting of its thesis. I’m delighted when I picture corseted women and wigged men oohing and aahing at this “great work of art” with our hidden meat cleaver smiling mockingly from behind its brown curtain. And I wonder to myself if in 500 years people will laugh at our gated communities and carefully doctored Instagrams in the same way I laugh at the squeamish collector now.

Certainly, in addition to being funny, this is sad. To disrespect a dying man’s last words, to rob him of the story of his death, is to profane his memory and all that to which he committed his life.

Of course, we all can sympathize with why the collector did it. Death is uncomfortable. Pain is unattractive. Much of where we fall short when trying to love marginalized people well can be traced back to these truths.

Why don’t I make eye contact with a homeless man who has no hands? Among other things, it’s because the reality of his suffering frightens me. I’ve heard people say, “I don’t go to funerals because they make me uncomfortable.” Of course they make you uncomfortable. Someone died. We all have to do a lot of processing before we get to a point where death isn’t the most terrifying thing we could ever conceive of, and I think that’s absolutely how it should be. Because in a world of disease, oppression, filth, and hate, there damn well should be a lot of things that make you uncomfortable.

Veronica S. Wickline ’16, an ancient history concentrator, lives in Kirkland House.

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