The Greatest Easter Painting Ever Made

Peter and John Running to the Tomb 1898

Tucked away in a central Parisian museum that was once a railway station, there hangs an Easter painting quite unlike any Gospel masterpiece created before or after it. It is not painted by a Rembrandt or a Rubens or the patron saint of artists, Fra Angelico. The painting is the work of a little-known Swiss painter.  For those who make a trip to see it, viewing the canvas is a special spiritual experience in their lives.

The work does not even show the risen Jesus.  It merely portrays two witnesses, Jesus’ oldest and youngest apostle.  The youngest who was the only man brave enough to stay by Jesus’ cross and the only one who did not die a martyr’s death as a result of it. The oldest apostle who first denied Jesus in fear, yet ultimately chose to be crucified upside down by the Roman authorities rather than deny Christ’s resurrection.

In “The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection” by Eugène Burnand, John clasps his hand in prayer while Peter holds his hand over his heart.  The viewer feels the rush as their hair and cloaks fly back with the wind.  They are sprinting towards discovery of the moment that forever altered heaven and earth.  As you look at it, engage for a moment in what the Catholic blogger Bill Donaghy calls “the visual equivalent of Lectio Divina.”  As Donaghy notes, “This Resurrection scene does not put us before still figures near a stagnant stone, or figures standing with stony faces in a contrived, plastic posture, pointing to an empty tomb. This scene is dynamic; we are in motion.”

During his time, Burnand was fascinated by the possibilities of the emerging art of photography. Ironically, he would later be dismissed in the twentieth century as too “bourgeois” and anti-modernist when in fact he was merging his love of tradition with his interest in new technological ways of capturing the human person.  His painting feels cinematic long before cinema existed as a major art form.

Through the movement and immediacy of the scene, the preceding minutes with Mary Magdalene are palpable.  In a sense, she is in the painting too.  “You can almost hear her voice in the background, can you not, a few minutes earlier, as she burst into their house…” writes the Episcopal Bishop Dorsey McConnell in an Easter sermon meditating on the painting.

Apart from Jesus’ mother, no other three participants capture the closeness of Jesus’ encounter with humankind quite like John, Peter and Mary of Magdala. Their interactions with Christ embody a relationship to God previously unimaginable to mankind.  Jesus turning to Peter as they sit by the fire and asking three times, “Do you love me?”, thereby washing away the sin of the three denials past; Christ turning to John in the midst of his suffering and saying, “Behold, your mother,” giving her to the Church entire.  And, of course, the beautiful moment about to transpire in which Jesus’ merely says Mary’s name and she recognizes Him with a cry of “Rabbouni!”  They are the moments which cause one to wonder how those who truly hate Christianity (not merely disbelief it) can remain so hostile to its narrative beauty.

Burnand’s work was part of a late nineteenth century version of the new evangelization. The public, particularly in the United States, desired original religious imagery.  Burnand lived in an era in which a revived spiritual hunger fought against the push of emerging atheistic philosophies, philosophies that would eventually consume a continent and leave only a struggling remnant of European Christendom in its wake.

He was “an illustrator of popular working types: collectors of coal, sowers in the field and even penitent woodsmen praying at a roadside cross,” writes Gabriel P. Weisberg, a professor of art history at the University of Minnesota. For him the image of two fishermen racing toward a supernatural realization about the death of a carpenter would be instinctive.

Look into Peter’s wide open eyes and John’s intense gaze.  Their eyes contain a mix of anxiousness and hope, the way a parent or grandparent’s eyes look at the news of an impending birth.  A new life is about to emerge, but there is still uncertainty because it is a mystery beyond full human comprehension or control. Peter and John’s faces capture the same sense of anticipation.

Burnand created a sparse, simple painting capturing two of the most important players in the greatest story ever told. Meditate upon their faces as Burnand intended you to do and through them discover the empty tomb.

Elise Ehrhard

By

Elise Ehrhard has written for numerous secular and Catholic publications, including The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Times, UPI, First Things, and Canticle.

  • Arriero

    The greatest photos from the Spanish Easter (2014). Unique and Beautiful. Pure Catholic.

    http://www.elconfidencial.com/multimedia/album/sociedad/2014-04-18/espana-vive-la-semana-santa-con-pasion_117817/

  • elarga

    The painting is actually by Eugène Burnand (30 August 1850 – 4 February 1921)

  • hombre111

    Magnificent article. Congratulations and a blessed Easter.

  • luran

    I must have missed. Thanks for sharing it. It is beautiful.

  • droolbritannia

    I think the painting of John and Peter rushing to the tomb is my favorite painting, bar none. If I’m ever rich, I’ll commission a copy of it to be made to hang where I can see it often. It draws me in like no other painting.

    Here in central Europe, we use powerpoint slides (not missalettes) for the people to follow the hymns in Mass. This image will be the image that appears while the Gospel is being read tomorrow.

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  • Patricia Walsh

    Awesome! Thank you so much for this article.

  • Stefanie

    Elise — thank you for writing this article! This is the painting I use when talking to the 2nd grade parents for our First Holy Communion retreat. I also use it in my adult confirmation classes and RCIA classes. A copy of it used to hang in our sacristy…it’s where I first saw it.
    It is all in the hands and in the eyes.
    John, as you said, watched with the Marys, for quite some time — the dead body of Jesus hanging on the cross. Afterall, they didn’t take Him down right away — and as sunset approached, His legs didn’t have to be broken to speed His death. Three hours was all it took to redeem us. So John and the other Marys must have intently looked over and over again, “are You truly dead?” “are You truly dead?” And truly dead, they buried Him. John’s eyes are full of anxious yet loving hope — the kind of look we have when we see the casket lowered into the ground, when the dirt begins to go on top of the casket of our loved ones: “I believe I will see you one day, dear one, when the Lord awakes us on the Last day.” John’s hands are clasped in prayer of devotion — “Please, God, let it be true! Please, God, let it be true!”
    Peter’s expression and hands are markedly different.
    Peter, after all, denied our Lord. The last time Jesus had looked into the eyes of Peter, Peter had just vehemently denied he knew Him. Yet he, too, runs to the tomb. As the leader of the group, this is Peter’s role — to be the 2nd male witness needed.
    But the look in Peter’s eyes is anxious dread. What will Jesus say to Him? Will Peter be condemned or forgiven? Peter is running with all the anxiety of the Prodigal Son – rehearsing in his mind, “Jesus, I have sinned against God and against You; I am not worthy to be called Peter, to be in charge of the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Choose another for that role; I am not worthy.” His hand grips his chest in a gesture of ‘mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” But Peter still does run forward…expecting to be condemned; hoping to be forgiven and loved anew.

  • concerned bible student

    The commemorative of Christ’s death was Nisan 14, according to scripture. Easter was 6 days late and doesn’t represent anything Christian. It is a commercialized holiday that promotes Rabbits a symbol of fertility to the romans, colored eggs, egg hunts, parades and Easter baskets. All you need to do is research the subject and you will find that all of these have nothing to do with Christianity, unless of course Pagan rituals don’t mean anything to you. Quite frankly, I feel that Easter is a slap in the face of true Christianity. Just expressing my freedom of speech and I HAVE done the research. Just Google colored eggs and see for yourself. Harmless fun? I doubt Jesus sees it that way.

    • concerned bible student

      Just click on this link after you enter your search, make your own decision. What You Might Not Know About Easter Eggs and Other Traditions

      • Laif

        Here goes…

        Basing their hypothesis on a passage of the Venerable St. Bede, some Protestants claim that the northern European Christians adopted the name Easter from the name of a pagan goddess: “Eastre” in Anglo-Saxon; “Eostre” in Northumbrian. She is also the infamous Ashtorah of the Old Testament, the one for whom poles were erected as signs of fertility. The Hebrew prophets spilled much ink condemning the the idolatrous worship of Ashtorah (cf. Isaiah 17:8, 27:9, Jereimiah 17:2, Micah 5:14).

        The name “Eastre” or “Eostre” comes from the proto Indo-European root “aus/eas” meaning “to shine” and “the east” (since the sun shines from the east). Our word “east” clearly derives from this root. Likewise, the word Austria comes from the same Indo-European root since it is the kingdom of the east or the “austra”.

        The Catholic Church does not formally call the feast “Easter” but rather “Pascha” – a word derived from the Aramaic word for “Passover”. Only English and Germanic lands use the term related to “Easter”.

        This would be a convenient etymology since it avoids the pagan connotations. Instead, it connects the word to Christ rising from the dead.

        I favor a third explanation. The Anglo-Saxons called the Spring equinox “Eostre”. It was a astronomical description. Since pagans ceremoniously celebrate astronomical events as holy days, the natural phenomenon (the spring equinox as a “shining”) and the religious feast (the goddess of fertility and light, Ashtorah) were indistinguishable.

        Anglo-Saxons didn’t borrow the name of a goddess for the feast of Christ’s resurrection. They simply denoted it by the name of the natural phenomenon (the spring equinox which they called “Eostre”), since the festival is calculated by using marking the spring equinox. It happens that the name of the goddess and the name of the feast are etymologically connected. This would confirm the exact context of Bede’s words:

        “Eostur-month, which is now interpreted as the paschal month, was formerly named after the goddess Eostre, and has given its name to the festival.”

        This doesn’t mean that paganism was baptized or that the newly Christianized people were still devoted to the goddess Eostre. Think about it, we still speak of “Thursday” but that doesn’t mean that we really think of it as “Thor’s day.” Rather, the old day names remained without their religious content. The same goes for “Easter” as the name of the spring equinox – the name remained but the goddess did not. Anyone who claims that Catholics worship “Eostre” for saying “Easter” should have the tables turned on him and then be accused of worshiping “Thor” for saying “Thursday.”

        Happy Easter or Pascha. Christ is risen! Alleluia!

        Godspeed, Taylor Marshall

        • Let the fruit speak for itself

          That analogy makes absolutely no sense. Your comparing a yearly event that has incredibly large circumstances to the future of humanity, to a day of the week. Please man, don’t try to hide the fact that you yourself stated. Easter is exactly what you stated it is. A Pagan adopted celebration. PERIOD>

    • Bob

      But what is your TRUE intent here? Are you just an anti Catholic trying to attack the Catholic Church?

  • St. Margaret Tucson

    No joke but Peter looks like Mel Gibson.

  • Janet

    I had the privilege of viewing this painting about 10 years ago and I have never forgotten it. The look in Peter’s eyes has been remarkably rendered – a mixture of fear, restrained joy, hope, disbelief and profound faith captured in a split second of time. Remarkable!

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  • for those blessed to travel to Paris- the museum to see this is the Musee d’Orsay- smaller than the Louvre- I still spent more time at the d’Orsay…

  • Ruth Rocker

    I visited the Musee d’Orsay on several trips to Paris while my husband was stationed in Germany with the military. I honestly don’t remember seeing this painting. I wish I had seen it while there. I doubt I’ll have a chance to go to Paris again, but on the off chance it happens, I’ll definitely make a point of finding and enjoying this work in person.

  • Maria Gabriela Salvarrey Rodri

    Beautiful Thx.

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