Eugène Burnand, “The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection,” 1898
In this painting, Eugène Burnand invites us along as Peter and John run to the empty tomb on Easter morning. In front of a resplendent dawning sky and rushing through a pastoral landscape, Peter and John are hurrying toward the site of Jesus’ burial. Peter, bearded, older, and wearing somber colors, wears a complex expression. In his face is the story of his experience of the Passion, the shock and anxiety, the fear and desperation, the guilt and heartbreak. His is an exhausted face that lived this experience. His body moves toward the tomb, but his spirit is conflicted—fearing the worst about the missing body, daring to hope but torn by the fact that he has denied the Lord. What if his body has been taken—when will the torture of these events stop? But what if he is risen? And what will happen now?
Next to Peter is John, the Beloved Disciple. He is younger and brightly clad with a face of yearning and deep emotion. His white garments convey purity and innocence, as well as new life. As the Beloved Disciple, he is a symbol of the Church, the symbol of those who will come and enter into the Death and Resurrection of Christ through the font of Baptism—John’s white garment reinforces this. He clutches his hands together, embodying desperate hope. His expression of yearning shows the small seed of faith growing larger within him to believe the unbelievable—that the body of the Lord is risen, not stolen. After the horrific events of the Passion, this thought alone is already a powerful movement of faith.
The dawning sky reinforces the idea of this growing faith. Like the brightness of the rising sun, the faith of the disciples dawns as they run to the empty tomb. They are told the body is taken, but as they run along and see for themselves, their dawning faith allows them to begin to understand, to begin to hope, and to begin to feel the joy of the Resurrection.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, director of ministerial formation at Saint John's University School of Theology and Seminary.
In Finding God, Grade 7, Session 20, the young people use the Art Print, which focuses on Eugène Burnand’s painting. Young people discuss how Peter and John’s facial expressions tell the story, how they might be feeling, and how this painting connects to the Gospel story of the disciples finding an empty tomb after Jesus’ Resurrection.
There are two activities that go with this Art Print lesson. The Expression: Movement activity invites young people to write various scenes from Jesus’ life, particularly those of Holy Week, on slips of paper. Groups then select a scene and write a short skit that shows appropriate emotions for the situation. The Expression: Art Studio activity points out how Eugène Burnand uses light in the painting, both to show the dawning sky and the way the rising sun lights up the faces of the Apostles. Discuss other ways light is presented in Scripture and have young people make an artwork that shows the Light of Christ in some way. Have them share and discuss their representations.