John 20:1–16

Mary Magdalene at the Tomb

Commentaries by Robin Griffith-Jones

Works of art by Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, Unknown artist and Unknown artist, French school

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Unknown artist, French school

Apse depicting the Ark of the Covenant, 9th century, Mosaic, The Oratory of Theodulphus, Germigny-Des-Pres, France; Photo © Bednorz Images / Bridgeman Images

The Grave Clothes, Lying There

Commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones

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Mary Magdalene, John tells us, looks into the tomb and sees two angels, one at the head and one at the feet, where Jesus’s body had been. Who are they, these angels? The question introduces us to a strange, poetic world. Every line of John’s Easter story echoes with allusions to the Jewish scriptures and to the whole story of creation that is recounted there.

The Temple was a microcosm of the entire created order. Its Holy of Holies was a paradise, decorated (as was Theodulf’s chapel) with tree-forms, fruits, and flowers. Separating the Temple’s most sacred space from the daylight outside was a vast veil depicting the heavens. Only the High Priest ever entered the Holy of Holies, and only on the Day of Atonement; he passed through the veil—through the heavens—to the court of God himself. The Holy of Holies in the Old Testament was the house of propitiation: the site where the people’s distance from God was ritually overcome by the scattering of blood.

For the New Testament, Jesus himself is the propitiation; Paul even describes him as the mercy-seat on the ark itself (Romans 3:25).

Back, then, to Theodulf’s mosaic. The ark here appears to be open; the lid has been removed; and a fold of cloth—the rest of it inside the ark—is visible over the ark’s front edge. Such a cloth does not belong in the Holy of Holies; it belongs in the tomb of Jesus. This ark is not just the throne of God; it is Jesus’s empty grave. The small cherubim who flanked the ark are now the angels in Jesus’s tomb. Christ’s own body is the new Holy of Holies, the intersection of heaven and earth, time and eternity.

If the throne of God is suddenly revealed as a tomb, then the empty tomb is by the same token exalted. We see it here in a paradise like that described in Genesis; the Garden of Eden where God once walked with humankind in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8).

As Mary is about to discover: he is here again.

The Holiest of Holies?

Commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones

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Read by Ben Quash

Theodulf was appointed Bishop of Orleans in around 798. His oratory at Germigny-des-Prés was consecrated in 805/6. Here is the mosaic in the apse, above the altar. It is no surprise to see cherubim and the hand of God against the golden vault of heaven.

But where is Jesus? One answer is: in the elements of the Mass on the altar below. Yes, but surely we should, in the mosaic above, be offered a glimpse of the glory disguised in those elements, of the intersection of the earthly and the heavenly realized in them. This mosaic disconcerts us; it makes us pause. It was meant to. 

Theodulf’s whole chapel was a homage to the Holy of Holies of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. How fitting: for Jesus’s own body is, for John, the Holy of Holies (John 2:21).

The mosaic shows the ark of the covenant with its small cherubim facing each other at each end; from here, in the tabernacle, the Lord would speak to Moses (Exodus 25:8–20). The ark was eventually installed by Solomon in his Temple’s Holy of Holies; and here we see the two further, giant cherubim, a perfect pair in shape, measurements and height, whose wings spanned that inner sanctum (1 Kings 6:23–8; 8:1–9).

The ark had always held a special place in Christian thought about art: it was modelled by Moses on a heavenly prototype (Exodus 25:9, 40). Theodulf wrote a polemic against the veneration of images. The ark, he argued, was among the very few ‘consecrated things’ worth a real intensity of spiritual gaze. He can prompt that gaze only and paradoxically through the material depiction of the ark. But which ark is depicted here: Moses’s ark, or its heavenly prototype?

So many questions, so few answers; such ambiguity between earthly and heavenly, material and spiritual.

And still no Jesus. We have been turned into seekers, and it is a strange and unsettling search.

Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo

Mary Magdalene, c.1535–40, Oil on canvas, 89.1 x 82.4 cm, The National Gallery, London; NG1031, © The National Gallery, London

Woman, Why Are You Weeping?

Commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones

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At the start of John’s Gospel the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus. They stand for John’s readers. ‘What’, he asks them and us together, ‘do you seek?’ (John 1:38–39). ‘Where you are staying’, they answer. He replies, ‘Come and see’: in and through the Gospel’s events that they—and the story that we—are about to undergo. What might any reader be looking for? A way to live, perhaps; some lasting truth; a fuller life. At the Gospel’s end Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb. First the angels ask her, ‘Why are you weeping?’ (v.13). In a moment Jesus will ask her the same, and then more. ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?’ (v.15). The Way, the Truth and the Life are not ideas or abstractions; they are a person (John 11:25).

Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo painted at least four surviving versions of this lavishly dressed young woman out alone at night, holding the viewer’s gaze. Mary was believed, in Savoldo’s day, to have been a courtesan in Galilee; in sixteenth-century Venice Savoldo’s figure will have recalled the city’s famous courtesans. We are bound to ask how sexy or saintly this woman is supposed to be. (Only the small ointment-jar identifies her as Mary Magdalene; one version omits it.) The challenge is more acute if the painting was commissioned by a man. (We cannot be sure; Mary Magdalene was admired by some of northern Italy’s most powerful and sophisticated women.) Savoldo keeps a delicate balance. Here is both a sexy jeu d’ esprit, and the soul that has transcended physical desires; both a tour de force to look at, and a meditation on the Christ we cannot see.

We have undergone John’s story. Mary’s love, tears, and search are ours too. Savoldo invites us to take the time, as we admire his shimmering, beautiful Mary, gradually and with awe to discern beside us the presence that outshines the dawn on Easter Day.

The Rising Light

Commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones

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Read by Ben Quash

This scene’s lagoon and its light bring Venice instantly to mind. The ruins would be at home on any of the city’s outer islands. Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo’s Mary Magdalene faces the viewer. The sun is rising beyond her. But her shawl is reflecting a brilliant light whose source is not the sun at all. Light pours onto her from a point to the right of the viewer, in front of the painted scene. What is this light’s origin?

Mary turned (John 20:14); then, John tells us, she turned again (v.16). In the painting Mary has turned to her left, to face us; and to see the source of the light she must turn on, round to her left again. And John tells us whom she will see, when she does: she will be facing the risen Jesus himself. A double light is dawning: of the rising day; and of Mary’s enlightenment.

Mary turned: in Latin, conversa est. The verb is the verb as well of ‘conversion’, of the turn away from darkness towards the light of Christ. We see her on the course of her turn, her ‘conversion’.

But Mary herself has been, through centuries of Western Christendom, the archetype of every soul’s conversion. So she impersonates us, the viewers. We see on Mary’s shawl the brilliance of Christ’s Easter glory and on Mary’s face, half of it still in shadow, her dawning recognition of the figure to our right. She looks at us as she is about to look at Christ himself. We see in Mary what Christ is about to see; and we are invited to see in her what Christ will see in us if we, like Mary, turn. So we are invited too to turn in conversion to the source of all light.

Unknown artist

Rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Consecrated 335, demolished 1009, rebuilt 1048, Architecture, Jerusalem, Israel; FredFroese / iStock

A Womb of Victory

Commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones

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Read by Ben Quash

Imagine Mary Magdalene at the tomb, perhaps the very cave now in the Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Where she went, we can still go. And over her lonely destination—still a dark, cramped, funereal space—are pilgrims from all the corners of the earth to celebrate Christ’s liberation from this grave. In baptism, St Paul tells us, we too die and are buried with Christ, so that we may rise again from sinfulness and death to share Christ’s risen life. The tomb in Jerusalem is not just Christ’s; it is our own.

Had Constantine’s Bishop Makarios found the tomb of Jesus? He was certainly in the right area. Local Christians might well have kept in mind that Calvary and the tomb were under Hadrian’s shrines. It is just possible that Hadrian cared enough about the Christians to bury—and so, ironically, to mark—their most sacred sites.

The Holy Sepulchre has been sacred to Christians ever since. How can we do justice to its power? Imagine visiting Gettysburg if you are American, the Somme if British, Bannockburn if Scottish. Imagine holding in your hands the Declaration of Independence or the manuscripts of Churchill’s war-time speeches. These may all sound too military; but they are all markers of victory won through suffering. Christ, too, was victorious, despite and through his death. At the Sepulchre, then, imagine not long-past events with an enduring influence, but—as Christians believe—the start of Jesus’s dominion, over evil and death, which he will wield and in which his followers will share as you read this and for the rest of time.

You may think there is more poetry here than fact. But John’s facts are not inert. He is the midwife of the spirit: his Gospel and its facts have worked if they have brought us by their conclusion through a new birth to a new life in a new-born world.

Building Memory

Commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones

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Read by Ben Quash

Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem in the April of 30 or 33 CE. He was probably buried in a new kokhim-tomb, with horizontal shelves dug into the rock round a central chamber, each shelf and the chamber itself plugged with a stone.

Within decades, the Jews rebelled twice against the Roman Empire; both times they were defeated and large parts of Jerusalem were destroyed. After the second revolt, the Emperor Hadrian refounded Jerusalem, c.135 CE, as a pagan city. Within a newly walled western area, over a quarry, he built a platform for the city’s principal shrines; one tall shard of natural rock was allowed to rise prominently through its plaza’s pavement.

Two more centuries passed. In 325 Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, ordered Bishop Makarios of Jerusalem to clear these pagan temples from their platform. Makarios reported back: excavating the platform, his workmen had found the tomb of Jesus. Calvary itself was identified as that shard of rock, 20 yards to the south east. At some stage the Empress Helena discovered, as she believed, the cross of Jesus a further 20 yards east of the tomb. All three sites were united in a vast complex of buildings, one of the great churches of Christendom. A rotunda, an imperial mausoleum, was built around the empty tomb; the rock surrounding it was cut away, the tomb itself was enclosed in a central structure or aedicule (‘little house’).

Why should we care? The tomb only matters because Jesus is not there. But the resurrection of Jesus only matters in its turn because he truly lived, died, and was buried. Only two places had been able to contain the uncontainable: his mother’s womb, for nine months; and his grave, for two days. He had left the first, to live among us; he left the second, the cave that we can still visit, to assume God’s power over all creation.

Unknown artist, French school :

Apse depicting the Ark of the Covenant, 9th century , Mosaic

Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo :

Mary Magdalene, c.1535–40 , Oil on canvas

Unknown artist :

Rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Consecrated 335, demolished 1009, rebuilt 1048 , Architecture

Invited to a New-Born World

Comparative commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones

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Read by Ben Quash

A building, a mosaic, and a painting, all of them focused on Easter; and not a single, triumphant recognition—in any of them—of the risen Jesus. This may all seem too indirect, too elusive. But all the three works we look at here are themselves about our capacity for sight: what we can and cannot see with our eyes, in what broader sensory, affective, and cognitive contexts, and with what effects upon our inner vision, our insight.

These three artefacts ask us, with minimal diversion, to see—and in doing so to ask ourselves what we are really seeing. 

John’s story is riveting. We surely value it, above all, for the precision of its account. Here may be the eye-witness recollection of the evangelist himself, likely to be the figure disguised in the Gospel as the ‘Beloved Disciple’ of Jesus. Here, then, is powerful testimony to the empty tomb of Jesus and so to his bodily resurrection. Here as well are good grounds in the Gospel itself for Christendom’s enduring fascination with Jesus’s shroud and head-cloth.

In all this, however, we are not yet quite seeing all that John invites us to see. John’s whole Gospel is a story of creation: of the old creation giving birth to the new. Day One was the first day of creation, on which God spoke his word into the darkness and there was light. Creation was ‘completed’ on the sixth day (Genesis 2:1–2), with the human beings. God appointed Adam to be the gardener of Eden, and to name its creatures. With their naming, their creation was complete at last. At the Gospel’s end Jesus dies on the sixth day with the climactic words, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30). John (and only John) has him buried in a garden (19:41–42). The bride in the Bible’s other great garden, in the Song of Solomon, loses her beloved, looks for him, and promises that when she finds him she will not let him go, she will take him to the room where her mother conceived her (Song of Solomon 3:1–4).

On Easter morning Mary Magdalene thinks Jesus is the gardener; he addresses her by name; and her new creation, her new birth is completed at last. She has found her beloved. How she longs to be near him again. But he is no longer the earthly presence he was.

Jesus’s tomb, a place of death, is revealed to be the new Holy of Holies, the ultimate place of life. The Holy of Holies himself, the intersection of time and eternity, earth and heaven, has been enclosed for two days in his own new sanctuary. The garden of Jesus’s tomb is a paradise, a new Eden; and Mary Magdalene is a new Eve, who had lost the Adam she loves. Jesus and Mary are in a new Eden, at the Holy of Holies in a new-born world.

We might wonder if this is almost too much: too many tunes played on too many apparently uncoordinated instruments. We may need to re-attune our ears. What Bach could create in music, John has composed in his Gospel: a vast fugue whose every variation comes home at last, in this one strange, dream-like story, to its glorious resolution.  

The New Testament is suffused with the sense of a new creation; and in these verses John is inviting his readers into it. We are not mere readers, observers of the story like visitors to a gallery passing from picture to picture behind the protective ropes. We are part of the drama; we are in it. As Constantine’s builders knew, we are ourselves to enter Christ’s tomb. As Theodulf knew, we are then in the Holy of Holies. As Savoldo knew, the light of all lights awaits us outside. And so, as they all knew, we are equipped to leave our own tomb and to head up to the crowded, jostling brightness of a new-born world.

Next exhibition: John 20:11–18

John 20:1–16

Revised Standard Version

1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magʹdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, 7 and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13T hey said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rab-boʹni!” (which means Teacher).