Saint Peter and Saint John Run to the Sepulchre by James Tissot

James Tissot

Saint Peter and Saint John Run to the Sepulchre, 1886–94, Opaque watercolour over graphite on gray wove paper, 208 x 156 mm, The Brooklyn Museum; Purchased by public subscription, 00.159.332, Bridgeman Images

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Apostolic Rivals

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‘Lord, what about this man?’ (John 21:21). Peter’s question hints at a rivalry which has bubbled beneath the surface of the second half of John’s Gospel. Which disciple takes precedence: Peter, or the disciple whom Jesus loved? The latter had reclined in the privileged position of intimacy at the Last Supper, acting as mediator between Peter and Jesus (13:23–25). He had enabled Peter’s access into the high priest’s courtyard (18:15–16) and stayed to witness Jesus’s death after Peter’s denial and flight (19:26–27, 35). On Easter day, the two disciples set off for the tomb together, but the beloved disciple arrived there first (20:4). The rivalry between these two intimates of Jesus continues to the Gospel’s end. ‘Lord, what about this man?’

The French artist James (Jacques) Tissot depicts that tension between Peter and John, albeit here in the earlier scene of their running to Christ’s tomb (20:1–10). One of 365 scenes from the life of Christ, painted following what Tissot called a ‘pilgrimage of exploration’ to the Holy Land, it presents the moment when the beloved disciple reaches the sepulchre.

Following Christian tradition, Tissot’s John is ‘younger and more active than his companion’ (Tissot 1898: 245), well able to outrun Peter. Arriving at the tomb, he is already illuminated by the light emanating from the two angels inside (20:12). Indeed, John himself looks angelic, clothed in dazzling white. Peter, following behind, is still in the shadows, his head turned back towards the city of Jerusalem rather than ahead to resurrection light.

For the community which produced John’s Gospel, Peter may be the shepherd, who confesses his love for Jesus (21:15–19). However, it is the disciple whom Jesus loves who is their direct link to Christ, and who has nurtured them in the faith. His testimony is the testimony they have come to know as true.

 

References

Tissot, J. James. 1898. The Life of Our Saviour Jesus Christ. Three Hundred and Sixty-Five Compositions from the Four Gospels with Notes and Explanatory Drawings, Volume II (London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Co.)


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