Matthew 14:22–33; Mark 6:45–52; John 6:16–21
Walking on the Water
A Safe Haven
Commentary by Johann Hinrich Claussen
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
Those in Peril on the Sea
Commentary by Johann Hinrich Claussen
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.
‘Beginning to Sink’
Commentary by Johann Hinrich Claussen
Faced with some works of art, you can find yourself completely unclear about what the artist wanted to express in them. That is frustrating at first, but then it gives you the freedom to focus on your own perceptions. What do I see in this painting?
Francisco de Goya’s painting of a dog’s head is enigmatic. It belongs to the so-called ‘black paintings’ with which he decorated his country house Quinta del Sordo. Having acquired the property in 1819, he created fourteen paintings of great inscrutability on its walls—just for himself and his few visitors.
The series offers a nightmarish panorama that can hardly be interpreted. Single human figures or groups of people in strange connections and contortions show the monstrosities of humanity as though in a ‘satanic mass’ of visual art.
The painting of a dog’s head is an exception. It is neither monstrous nor charged with mysterious references. It only shows a dog’s head. But it is as difficult to understand as it is simple in appearance. Was it easier to decipher it in its original state? Historical photographs from the Quinta show that Goya had originally placed the dog in a landscape with a high rock in front of it, birds flying in the sky, at which the dog’s gaze was directed. All this is lost. Now the head alone survives, surrounded by fields of yellow-brown colour. Everything that could provide context is erased. Is the dog hiding behind a hill, is it buried in sand, or is it struggling in brown water—sinking into a dark wave? And what does its expression communicate: is it fearful or hopeful?
Whatever Goya wanted to express in his original composition, what I see here now is an endangered creature, all alone, surrounded by a brown nothingness—a desert of sand and ashes or a hostile sea that threatens to bury or to drown it. But it keeps its head up, looks straight ahead, seeming to expect something that will rescue it—perhaps even seeing it already.
This dog seems to me to be more expressive of the human condition than all the other figures in the ‘black paintings’. And it is this condition that Peter gives voice to with his words: ‘Lord, save me!’ (Matthew 14:30).
Hofmann, Werner. 2003. Goya: ‘To Every Story There Belongs Another’ (London: Thames & Hudson)
Paula Jordan :
Jesus and Peter on the Water, 1949 , Charcoal drawing on plywood
Philipp Otto Runge :
Christ Walking on the Water (Calling of Saint Peter), 1806–07 , Oil on canvas
Francisco de Goya :
The Drowning Dog, 1820–23 , Mixed method on mural transferred to canvas
Easter Before Easter
Commentary by Johann Hinrich Claussen
The story of Jesus and his disciples on the Sea of Galilee can best be read as an Easter story. It begins with Jesus gone, and the disciples alone and desperate. Then he appears to them in the most incredible way. In walking on the water—as in his resurrection appearances—he reveals his true identity. Fear gives way to trust; the disciples reach the shore safely and continue their mission.
With its tensions and contradictions between fear and joy, doubt and faith, this Easter story before Easter shows the rich dynamics of a mature and paradoxical faith in Christ.
In Mark’s version, ‘good news’ does not ring out loud and clear. Jesus does not walk on the water in order to save the struggling disciples. Actually, he seems about to pass them by. His disciples think he is a ghost and scream (6:49). He tries to comfort them but the horror does not leave them, nor does their incomprehension. This fits with the approach of an Evangelist who does not proclaim the radiant Easter faith we find in the other three Gospels, and who ends his Gospel (as he ends this episode on the Lake) by preserving a note of fear (Mark 16:8).
John meanwhile mentions a strong wind, but no real danger. The disciples are afraid, but not too much, because Jesus immediately comforts them: ‘It is I!’ (6:20). They recognize him and understand everything. By contrast with Mark, John tells this story as though Easter faith is unproblematic, and can be taken for granted by Jesus’s own.
The most exciting version of this story is Matthew’s, which navigates a passage between Mark’s note of questioning and John’s emphasis on assurance. Matthew is the only one of the three who seems to have realized that this is a central Easter story, and a very dramatic one.
It’s a story which he imbues with an almost Gothic atmosphere. Jesus withdraws, the disciples remain alone (as they do after Good Friday). They are in danger of their lives, in the middle of the night, in severe distress at sea: not just struggling into a difficult headwind, but ‘beaten by waves’ (14:24)
Then he comes to them; they look at him; he does not pass them by. That is their salvation. Walking on the water is not the miracle itself, but only a means to an end: a new relationship in faith. The key to salvation lies in the word with which Jesus Christ identifies himself to his believers, just as he does after the resurrection. The one who seems at first like an apparition on the water is Jesus, just as the one who appears among his disciples in a locked room after his burial is the very one with whom they walked during his lifetime.
But Peter, whose role in this story is unique to the Matthean account, cannot simply believe this. Like Thomas in John’s Gospel, he needs a proof for the truth of this self-identification by Jesus. Therefore, he puts his master and himself to a test. Surely, ‘if it be [Jesus]’ (v.28), the miracle of walking on water must be replicable. So Peter leaves the boat, walks a few steps, then looks around. He sees the real situation he is in and begins to sink. His master saves him and admonishes him.
One would like to know in what tone he asked Peter: ‘Why did you doubt?’ (v.31). Peter could easily have answered by saying that human beings cannot walk on water just as a dead person cannot come to life again. But he has just had an incredible and undeniable experience of consoling closeness and saving intimacy. So he silently goes back into the boat with his master. All is well again. Peter remains silent, but his friends now do understand and make a confession: they identify Jesus as the Son of God.
To present this dynamic story in a picture is an extreme challenge. Perhaps that is why relatively few have tried. As an artist you have to decide whether you want to focus on the one aspect or another: bewildered fear or miraculous faith. So, Paula Jordan—like John—has put comfort and salvation in the foreground of her drawing and reduced all that is frightening. In Francisco de Goya’s Dog on the other hand—just as in Mark—one can see the opposite: the depiction of naked loneliness and creaturely fear, with only the vague expectation of something that might help. But a synthesis of both moments was achieved by Philipp Otto Runge who—like Matthew—created the visual idea of a mature and dynamic Easter faith able to embrace paradox.