I’m settling into my office and the white, bare walls needed something. Posters were pricey so I dug around online and found public domain images of two of my favorite paintings and had them printed.
“What is Truth” was painted by Nikolas Gé, a Russian painter in the late 1890s. Pilate, dominating the scene, stands in the bright sunlight. But if you look close, he is a little off-balance (at least, according to one art critic) and shadows darken his face. Jesus stands in the shadows, beaten, crowned with thorns and covered with a tattered shawl. But the cloak lying at his feet has the appearance of roots, giving him the impression that he is firmly planted. Sunlight illuminates his face as he looks outward towards the day. The scene is taken from the gospel of John and is one of the most ironic the book. Pilate brushes aside the question of truth with a question “What is truth?” while he is faced with the Truth incarnate, standing before him.
Gé was inspired in part by his friendship with Leo Tolstoy when he began to paint more scenes from the gospels. Tolstoy said of the painting, “There can be no peace between Christ and the world, this is true to history and true to our own day.”
“Peter and John” running to the tomb” was painted by Eugène Burnand, an evangelically minded protestant painter from the Vaud canon in Switzerland. He studied art in Paris and eventually settled there. “Peter and John,” his most famous painting, hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The faces of the two men are marked with a combination of great fear and great hope as they run to the tomb. Burnand, in the face of critics of his day, was convinced that Christ was a real historical person. When he painted scenes from the Bible, he used real people as models and tried to capture the actual human dimensions in what actually happened.
The paintings are quiet reminders of the great joy and challenge of following Jesus today. Wherever we identify with Jesus, there we are firmly rooted, even we find ourselves standing in the shadows, beaten, and slidelined. There, with our King who was himself mocked, beaten and torn, we have fellowship with the Truth. As was true of the life of Jesus, so will be true of his followers. “The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
At the same time, we are like Peter and John. Somewhere along the line we heard the amazing news “Christ is risen! All things are being made new!” We, like those disciples, had to engage personally. We had to respond, to change, to embrace what we heard. In a sense, our whole lives echo that early morning jog to the tomb. We live in response to what Jesus has done without yet fulling seeing the fulfillment. Often fear competes with hope and an aching for resolution competes with the peace that God gives in the present. What is sure is that behind us, around us, the light is dawning, Christ’s kingdom is advancing, and all our running is not in vain.