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.
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
22 Then he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. 25And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out for fear. 27But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”
28 And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; 30but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Beth-saʹida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out; 50for they all saw him, and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” 51And he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17got into a boat, and started across the sea to Caperʹna-um. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The sea rose because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near to the boat. They were frightened, 20but he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.