Jesus and Peter on the Water by Paula Jordan

Paula Jordan

Jesus and Peter on the Water, 1949, Charcoal drawing on plywood, 180 x 180 cm, Evangelische Lagerkapelle Friedland, © Family of Paula Jordan; Photo by the author, reproduced with permission of Innere Mission und Evangelisches Hilfswerk im Grenzdurchgangslager Friedland e. V.

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A Safe Haven

Many works of art in churches are of no outstanding art historical value. But they can gain a different significance through their location and liturgical and pastoral use.

In the mid-twentieth century, Paula Jordan was the most influential Bible illustrator in German speaking Protestantism. Today, however, hardly anybody knows her work. But her drawing of Jesus and Peter has a special significance because of its location: it decorates the wall of a chapel that is unique in the world.

After the Second World War, the British occupation administration founded the Friedland camp near Göttingen. It became the most important haven in Germany for displaced persons from Eastern Europe. A chapel was built for them in 1949. On the outside it looked like just another barrack building, but inside it offered a quiet and warm place of worship—a ‘safe space’ for traumatized people.

‘You are safe here’ is also the message of this charcoal drawing made directly on the plywood wall, on the right side, next to the small organ. Peter was drowning in external distress and internal despair when Jesus came to him on the water, bending down to take him in his arms; encircling him with his robe as if under a protective cloak.

The drama here is intimate. The lake, the boat, and the other disciples are not depicted; they don’t seem to matter. The drawing focuses exclusively on the care that Jesus gives to Peter. Here the master certainly does not reproach his disciple for not believing enough.

One might criticize this drawing for neglecting the tension in the story (and for being so unhistorical or for making no reference to the suffering of the victims of German violence). Yet it shows a fine pastoral sensitivity. It takes up the fresh memories of danger and fear of those who gather in this chapel and contrasts them with an image of trust and hope.

In the following decades displaced persons continued to come to this place from many other countries and continents: Chile, Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, Sudan. Even today Christians, but also Muslims, come to this chapel for devotion. The pastor relates that they do like to look at Jordan’s drawing. It does not need to show the terror of the storm, because that is already in the hearts and minds of those who contemplate it.

 

References

Claussen, Johann Hinrich. 2020. Die seltsamsten Orte der Religion (München: C.H.Beck)

Keuchen, Marion. 2019. ‘Jordan, Paula Maria Luzia’, in Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon–Ergänzungen 50 (Nordhausen: Verlag Traugott Bautz GmbH), pp. 167–77