Christ Walking on the Water (Calling of Saint Peter) by Philipp Otto Runge

Philipp Otto Runge

Christ Walking on the Water (Calling of Saint Peter), 1806–07, Oil on canvas, 116 x 157 cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle, bpk Bildagentur / Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg / Photo: Elke Walford / Art Resource, NY

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Those in Peril on the Sea

Philipp Otto Runge was the tragic genius of German Romanticism. He died at the age of only 33, having long suffered from tuberculosis.

Three years before his death he painted this commissioned work. The pastor of the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea wanted to build a chapel for the herring fishermen, so that he would no longer have to give his sermons on the beach. But the Napoleonic Wars delayed his plans, so Runge’s altarpiece for the fishermen’s chapel remained unfinished.

The painting transfers the biblical story to the coast of Rügen. The disciples wear the fishermen’s clothes of Runge’s own time. But despite these references, the painting is not naturalistic; it blends the visible world with the invisible. In illuminating the scene, the moon creates a supernatural pathway of light that leads to Christ. Strong contrasts also characterize the painting: tumultuous cloud formations contrast with steady moonlight; the churning waves and wind-swollen sails in the foreground contrast with the millpond-flat water behind them; the excited disciples contrast with the Saviour, calm amidst his swirling mantle. The visual drama of these contrasts signals a spiritual drama.

The painting may show the moment when Christ asks Peter: ‘Why do you doubt?’. But here it hardly seems that Peter had been ‘of little faith’ (Matthew 14:31). The painting shows him having covered a surprisingly long distance on the water. He has not sunk immediately. But his faith must have departed from him on the way; the impression of the high waves and the strong wind must have been too powerful. Fortunately he can cling to Christ.

The disciples in the boat take part in this drama, each in his or her own way. Some cry out in horror, others want to help or are resigned in prayer. On their faces and in their postures, the two opposite moments that characterize the biblical story are evident: horror and trust, doubt and faith.

This story is not commonly painted, and hardly ever as an altarpiece. But in the unbuilt chapel of the herring fishermen in Rügen this unfinished masterpiece would have found just the right congregation: people who knew what distress at sea means and what kind of faith it takes to overcome its terrors.