-by Elise Ehrhard
“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!!!!!![Editor’s emphasis]” [Editor: We all are. But, to where? Each/all must answer that question of/in life. No exceptions. Not choosing IS a choice.]
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.”