Picturing the Resurrection

The best paintings of the resurrection don’t include Jesus in them. At least it seems that way. Seven years ago (was it really that long??) I asked the question as to whether Eugène Burnand’s 1867 painting The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection was the greatest Easter painting of all time. My post about that painting went viral so clearly a lot of people thought so.

The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection

But there might be another contender, if not for the best Easter painting, for one of the most poignant depictions of the Resurrection. It is certainly one of the most evangelistic pictures in sacred art.

The same year that Burnand painted Peter and John racing to the tomb of Christ, a Russian artist Nikolai Ge depicted the events that immediately preceded that hope-filled race. Ge’s painting Heralds of the Resurrection (1867) shows Mary Magdalene rushing to tell the disciples that Christ was alive again.

Heralds of the Resurrection

What both these pictures have in common is that Christ is out of frame. Instead of seeing the resurrected Jesus, we’re seeing the faith of those who believe it. Depicting the gravity of this mind-boggling event is notoriously difficult. A lot of paintings of the resurrection make Jesus look alien or otherworldy. But Burnand and Ge avoid this by placing Jesus out of the picture and painting the effect the resurrection has on his disciples.

Ge does this in part with his stunning use of light and shade. Mary is bathed in morning light, her face set resolutely toward her destination. A white robe flows over her red dress. In classical religious art, the Magdalene was routinely painted wearing red, alluding erroneously to the assumption of the day that she was a repentant prostitute. In Ge’s depiction, her old life is covered by a white cloth symbolizing her new life in Christ.

Her hair and clothing are swept behind her, making it look either like she is moving quickly, or that she is running against a stiff breeze. She is barefoot. Some have said that, at first glance, she looks like a small bird about to take flight.

All in all, Mary appears like a fragile yet urgent messenger – a woman of perceived ill-repute, an unreliable witness in a man’s world.

In the foreground, lurking in the shadows, are three Roman soldiers. Some commentators suggest they are the guards ordered to watch over Christ’s tomb, but I’m inclined to believe Ge saw them as part of the Jerusalem garrison who oversaw Jesus’ humiliation and crucifixion. They seem oblivious to Mary and therefore seemingly unaware of the Resurrection. Maybe they are wandering back to barracks after a night out. Two of them are laughing, as one gestures to the third. Maybe they are making a joke at his expense.

The depictions of Mary and the men couldn’t be more different. She is awash with light; they are in darkness. She runs with purpose and urgency; they meander aimlessly. She is birdlike; they walk heavily upon the earth. She is empty-handed; they bear their weapons casually.

What separates them is not only Ge’s use of light, but the debris of a broken cross discarded on the ground, including the board bearing Pilate’s verdict, “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.”

Mary and the soldiers are posed either side of the cross, as though its overlooked wreckage forms a dividing line between the people of faith and those of indifference, between the people in the light and those who remain in the darkness.

But interestingly, in Ge’s depiction both Mary and the soldiers are indifferent to the broken cross. Mary’s gaze is set on the sun-drenched horizon, running toward the disciples, desperate to share what she’s seen. The cross is no longer important to her. Christ has risen! She had mistaken him for a gardener when she went to visit Jesus’ tomb, but her eyes were opened when he spoke her name. It was his instruction to her to go to the brothers and tell them what she’d seen that spurred her on the rush depicted in this painting.

The soldiers are equally unconcerned with the discarded cross, but for very different reasons. For them, the device has served its purpose. The condemned man has been executed. What further interest should they have in it? They are unaware that this event would become one of the most decisive in history. Just as it divides them from Mary in this painting, so it will divide believers from unbelievers from this time forth. I think Ge is inviting the viewer to ask which side of the cross they stand on.

I think this is one of the most subtly evangelistic Easter paintings ever created.

When Nikolai Ge painted Messengers of the Resurrection in 1867 he was entering a period of personal religious and political renewal. After painting abroad for many years, Ge returned to St Petersburg in 1870 where he became acquainted with Leo Tolstoy and became a follower of his philosophy. He came to believe that selling his paintings was obsene, writing that a man should live off of farming, and art should not be for sale. He bought a small khutor (farm) in Chernigov (currently Ukraine) where he tilled the soil for the rest of his life. The Russian art world turned on him, with many critics and fellow artists criticizing his old work as blasphemous and his religious faith as embarrassing.

Ge died on his khutor in 1894. The whereabouts of many of his greatest works remains a mystery. 

Nikolai Ge’s self portrait

Maybe Nikolai Ge found which side of the cross to stand on. He appears to have chosen the light, to reject the trappings of the Russian art scene, to embrace poverty and generosity, to love God and others in his simple way. We can be thankful one of his masterpieces survived him and continues to inspire us to this day.

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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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7 thoughts on “Picturing the Resurrection

  1. I enjoyed this musing. Thanks Mike – nice to see you back on the blog!

    1. Thanks David. Good to hear from you again, friend.

  2. Your comments remind me of a time several years ago when a dear friend who is a Catholic nun came with us to a communion service in our Uniting church. She was so touched by what took place and its similarity to what she experienced in a Catholic mass that she said ‘I feel like Mary running to tell the disciples that the Lord has risen.’ I think we have more in common than what keeps us apart.

    1. It was lovely to hear from you, Michael. Long time no see. I hope you and the family are well. That story about the nun was beautiful. What a sweet soul.

  3. Thank you. I have never seen this painting, and am deeply blessed by your thoughts on it. It’s powerfully beautiful.

  4. The paintings and the story of the artist resonated with me. Thank you for your commentary Mike

  5. Thus was a great analysis about a lovely, meaningful painting. We need more Christian art like this, including books, poetry, & film.

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