Is this the greatest Easter painting of all time?

It has the imposing title, The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection.

More often than not it’s just referred to by the shortened form, The Disciples or Les Disciples.

You won’t find it in the Louvre or the Met or the National Gallery. It hangs tucked away in an old railway station in Paris, now the Musée d’Orsay, on the left bank of the Seine.

It was painted in 1898 by a relatively little known Swiss artist named Eugène Burnand. He was something of an old-fashioned realist at a time when all the cool kids were embracing modernism. The Disciples didn’t make a splash when it was first hung. Burnand’s style was already considered passé by the 1890s.

But those who take the time to find it in the d’Orsay come away saying that viewing the canvas is akin to a spiritual experience. Some say it is the greatest Easter painting ever made.

 

Scroll up and look again at the picture.

As the first blush of dawn is tinting the clouds, Peter and John are rushing to the tomb of Christ. They’ve just been told by Mary Magdalene that she and the other women found it empty, that Christ has risen. Her words are ringing in their ears. But their faces and their bodies reveal they aren’t sure they can believe her.

John, the younger of the two, wrings his hands together anxiously. He was with Jesus when he died on the cross, the only disciple to stay by his side to the end. He looks as if he can barely bring himself to believe that Christ might be alive again.

And then there’s Peter. While John was Jesus’ only faithful disciple, Peter was his most faithless. He was the only one to verbally deny even knowing Jesus in his darkest hour. In this picture Peter looks terrified, hopeful, ashamed, desperate. He’s not sure whether he can believe the reports. But he wants to. Oh, how he wants to. How did Burnand capture such a variety of emotions in that one face?

Peter’s hand grasps his chest, as if feeling for courage, the courage that deserted him just nights earlier.

They both lean forward, walking briskly, readying themselves to break into a run.

The picture crackles with kinetic energy. It is a study in desperate anticipation. Surely this is also the posture with which we should approach Easter. Leaning in, wringing our hands, clutching our chests, desperate for it to be true.

 

Isn’t that what Lent is about? Haven’t we been bearing the burden of our brokenness, ashamed of our denials of Christ, and hoping against all hope that Jesus is alive? And that he loves us? And forgives us?

Burnand depicts no women, no tomb, no gardener. Only the promise of what’s to come.

That’s our experience of Resurrection too, isn’t it? We take it by faith and we’re desperate for it to be true. We rush headlong into the future, holding ourselves in order to believe, trusting that Christ is alive and that he will return to vindicate our feeble faith and forgive us our trespasses.

May this overlooked masterpiece be a comfort to you this Easter. And may your faith increase and your brokenness be healed. And may your eyes be filled with the same desperate hope that Peter’s and John’s were on that first Easter morning.

 

 

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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38 thoughts on “Is this the greatest Easter painting of all time?

  1. I don’t know whether it is or it isn’t but it instantly brought tears – lots of tears – to my eyes.
    Thanks for posting Michael.

    1. Amen

  2. I saw this painting in person last spring in Paris…even more moving in person! I couldn’t step away…

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. When my wife and I visited Paris together in 2001 we purchased a print of this painting from the museum shop. We went to the trouble of framing it as if it was an original and have had it in every one of our homes ever since! It’s a great inspiration to us. Thank you for this reflection.

    1. Is there a place that you can Order a print of this beautiful and meaning painting?

      1. I found it on art.com

    2. My wife and I did the exact same thing. We just moved and it is hanging where we can see it the first thing every morning.

  4. Yes, could it be true? I think we have all felt this at times. The experience of Jesus death on the cross by those who knew and loved him would have been overwhelming. So inspiring! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Thanks Mike, that’s just what I’ve been looking for, a visual depiction of what it might have been like to not know the next chapter of the story in the way we do at Easter Camp and in congregational worship and a way to ask questions and offer hopes to ponder without having to do all the speaking…

  6. I must admit this is my first encounter with this work of art. Obviously the eyes speak volumes.
    John’s eyes and hands synced as hoping against hope. Simon’s eyes catching glimpses of the Sunday morning sun…….his hand on his chest…..and beneath his hand a heart beating with hope. One that only minutes earlier was despondent, broken and as dead as his Rabbi on Friday…….

  7. The hands are the first things I noticed, then the facial expressions. I thought John’s look was “Could it be?’ While Peter’s was more ‘Can I say I’m sorry for what I did?’ I’ve never seen this picture before, but it is really a ‘stop and wonder’ piece of art. Personally, I think Peter is often given a raw deal. We know he did deny Jesus, as He had predicted; but for a while at least he was there in the near vicinity of his Lord.

  8. I thought Peter’s hand was on his chest to stop his cloak from falling off his shoulder in his haste… and then maybe because his chest was hurting with running so hard for an older guy. The contrast between the two disciples is quite striking. John looks like he might have just woken up, whereas Peter looks like he might have had a restless night or two recently. John is youthful, appearing almost angelic, while Peter is haggard and weather-beaten, clothed in earthy colours. Yet despite this they both rush, side by side, joined in hopeful expectation. Mike, thanks so much for the reflection.

  9. This picture is featured in Andrew Walkers book ‘Journey into Joy.’ I love it. The artist has got so much into their facial expressions. Inspiring.

  10. You say John was the only faithful disciple. You ignore the fact that there were women (named even) who stayed and watched at the cross. Please don’t say they weren’t disciples as they are certainly included in those who followed and ministered to him.

    1. Of “The 12” was implied and assumed.

  11. I saw this painting in person! Pictures don’t do it justice! It’s strikingly beautiful!

  12. So for a non serious comment. I always thought John looked like Orlando Bloom in this picture. 🙂

  13. I was caprivated by this picture when I saw it hanging high on the wall in one of the first rooms on the left of the Museum. Something deeply resonated with that character of Peter.

  14. This painting brings to me the presences of my Christian upbringing. The memories of Bible teaching and the faith in my beliefs.

  15. So overwhelming. And comforting at the same time. We’re all John and Peter at times or .. at all times.
    Thank your for posting it. May this Easter touch our hearts for good!
    Blessings,
    Sergio

  16. This picture moved me greatly this Easter, really to my depths as I saw myself in each of their faces….”What, he’s not in the tome?!”…oh, the thoughts, the emotions, the dreams and visions of theirs and so many others that had been smashed, that came crashing down into unbearable oblivion on that black Friday…Could this be put into words? I think not. It takes a picture such as this to show such palatable emotional intensity and turmoil – as we know would be on our own faces… confusion and turmoil!…”What could this mean if it’s even true?!”….we see these two as they are spinning further into a surreal world where they could not be sure what was real and what was not… their feet in desperate search of the rock of security they had once stood on…and if not to regain that security just to find out what has happened… What had happened to the man-god they had walked with, slept with, ate with and just seen put to death, a being such as world had never experienced?…”We must go at once to find out what has happened!”…and they did, and so have so many of us for the last 2000 years…and more will follow till he returns. Thank you Jesus The Christ. We will Bless your name forevermore.

  17. We all have fears, anxieties, uncertainties of the future ahead, lost & despair, desperate, doubtful and emptiness as we encounter the trials and hardships of life, for some, death is inevitable or imminent, and for some, abandonment is destined. We were no different from Simon Peter and John, or the rest of the apostles for that matter but Jesus Christ Our Lord meant what he said and promised. Heaven and Earth will pass away but My Words SHALL remain with you till the end of times.
    Jesus Christ Our Lord died and resurrected, HE was ahead of us in “Galilee” (Our own Galilee) with arms open and embraces us with the gift of Hope and surge the power to conquer our faithless state to revive our spirit, to renew our damage soul with the glory of the Living Christ ! The Redeemer of all the brokenness who seek to fill the Living Water of GOD that never thirst.
    Let us journey with courage and steadfast & race towards GOD as we mission to proclaim the Gospel through the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

  18. What an amazing wonderful painting! As I read the comments, many of them so poetical and deeply moving, I thought about the artist and how deeply he must have meditated on the Easter story, and how this moment in time must have captivated him until he could feel the emotions of these two men and was able to capture them with paint and brush. What an incredible gift he had and how it continues to bless!

  19. I love that painting ! Is it possible to get a reproduction? Thank you.

  20. […] this article https://mikefrost.net/greatest-easter-painting-time/, Michael Frost reflects on a semi famous painting of John and Peter running towards the tomb on […]

  21. Nah, greatest Easter painting is ‘The taking of Christ’ by Caravaggio. This is pretty good though.

    1. THAT’S your response?

      1. You ask a question, you get a response 🙂 Alright, already.

        I still think it is a good Easter painting… one of my favourites even… demanding the response you call for. Just not the best.

      2. You ask a question, you get a response 🙂 Alright, already.

        I still think it is a good Easter painting… one of my favourites even… demanding the response you call for. Just not the best.

  22. oh dear… what a numpty. Sorry for the double post. Maybe it is the best and I am being justly punished.

  23. Powerful and so helpful this Easter morning. Thank you.

  24. I saw this painting in Paris years ago and found it incredibly beautiful and moving – the running bodies leaning forwards with eagerness and anticipation and the wonderfully evocative facial expressions. When I read the gospel stories the images in the painting of John and Peter are just as I imagine them. So when I returned to Paris a couple of years ago the most important thing I wanted to do was to return to the museum to see it again. It wasn’t where I remembered it to be and we had to ask where it was. It moved me again as it had done before. I now have a print of it in the kitchen. Thank you for the post. The painting on its own sums up what Easter is about. He is risen!

  25. I love this painting. Thanks for sharing!

  26. Except the ages are way off – which people always forget. John was probably in his early 20s and Peter in his mid 20s when Jesus was put to death and brought back to life.

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