The painting was commissioned by Asdrubale Mattei who, on 31 January 1625, paid the artist a deposit for the creation of two paintings for his new gallery, one of the most interesting and innovative collections in all Rome in the first quarter of the 17th century.
The scene is taken from apocryphal texts and is somewhat out of the ordinary. The expressive core of the painting, the meeting of the two apostles’ gaze, as they knowingly face martyrdom, is focused on and exalted by the violent movements of the gaolers, which are only apparently disordered and frenzied, for they are actually arranged along lines which lead the observer’s eye to focus attention at the height of St Paul’s face, illuminated by a source of light which, one can imagine, is that of torches placed outside the painting. St Peter’s head is seen three-quarters, mirroring that of Paul: we can see less than his profile, which is highlighted by the thin light-coloured border framing him and bringing out his features and his expression as he responds with dramatic melancholy to the vehement face of Paul. The bright red of St Paul’s clothes leads the observer’s attention to the apostles’ hands, which are clenched in a silent pact sealing their martyrdom.
Serodine, who was almost entirely self-taught, interprets the style of Caravaggio in a very personal manner. Born in a Lombard family of stucco decorators and stonecutters, he moved to Rome at the end of the 16th century. The artist betrays his original artistic training in the mellowness of his colours and in his search for a consistency of matter which is exalted by sudden flashes of light. This aspect probably led Baglione to adopt a critical attitude towards Serodine’s work (Spezzaferro 1987, pp. 9–13) for, even though he was known to have made some high-quality paintings, he was considered by his contemporary to be an “imitator of the style of Michelagnolo Amerigi da Caravaggio, working from life, but without drawing and with little propriety”.