After the execution of St James Major, King Herod had St Peter thrown into prison. As it was Passover, he ordered a very strict guard to be kept over him until the festival was over, when he would stand trial. In the meantime, the whole Church prayed for his deliverance.
The night before his trial, St Peter was in his prison cell, bound in chains and asleep between two soldiers. Suddenly, a bright light filled the room and an angel appeared. He woke St Peter and told him to get up quickly. The chains fell from his hands and after dressing in a hurry, he followed the angel out of the door.
They passed through the prison without being seen or heard and came to the city’s great iron gate, which opened all by itself. The angel accompanied St Peter down one street and then suddenly left him. St Peter came to his senses and he realised that his prison break was real, not just a dream.
He headed straight for the house of Mary, the mother of St Mark, where he knew that many of the disciples would be. His unexpected knock at the door surprised them all. On entering, St Peter told them all how God has rescued him from prison and asked them to share the news with the other apostles. Then he went on his way.
The next day, there was a real commotion back at the prison. The soldiers just couldn’t figure out what had become of St Peter. After an unsuccessful search, King Herod ordered the prison guards to be put to death and left for another part of his kingdom.
Reflecting on this passage, Pope Benedict VXI noticed that the story is “marked by the prayer of the Church. St Luke writes: “So Peter was kept in prison; but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (Acts 12:5). And, after having miraculously left the prison, on the occasion of his visit to Mary’s house, the mother of John also called Mark, it tells us “many were gathered together and were praying” (Acts 12:12).”
The pope went on: “Between these two important observations that illustrate the attitude of the Christian community in the face of danger and persecution, is recounted the detainment and release of Peter, during the entire night. The strength of the unceasing prayer of the Church rises to God and the Lord listens and performs an unheard of and unexpected deliverance, sending his Angel.”
This stained glass scene of St Peter’s escape from prison is found within the sanctuary of St Peter’s church, in Cardiff. Produced by Mayer of Munich in 1883, it’s one of a trio picturing scenes from St Peter’s life (including this one). Here we see him walking free as the chains drop from his wrists and the angel ushers him on.
The window is deliberately similar to common stained glass scenes of the Resurrection of Christ. These commonly feature sleeping guards and an angel while Christ emerges from the newly-opened tomb. In this scene, the guards are also seen snoozing as St Peter steps out of the prison.
Scholars have often noted the parallels between Christ’s resurrection and St Peter’s own miraculous escape from death. It seems that the artist also wanted to underline this comparison. Notice that like the Resurrected Christ, St Peter is pictured barefoot, although the text says that he had put his sandals on.
See the full image:
Where to find this work of art
St Peter’s, Roath
Read the relevant passage