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.”
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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.