C.D. Friedrich, Easter Morning, detail (c.1828-1835). Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (© Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza/Scala, Florence).

A new dawn

A morning full of hope, a path ahead: Friedrich's painting “Easter Morning” on the CL Easter poster. Luca Doninelli discusses the painting in the April issue of Tracce.
Luca Doninelli

Easter Morning, painted by Caspar David Friedrich in the 1830s, is a very complex and dramatic painting, full of signs, warning, and full of afterthoughts that leave their mark on a seemingly simple and orderly canvas.
The composition is solemn. It is a cold Easter morning. In the center we see a street. Friedrich’s works typically introduce elements that refer to movement. Friedrich is a very narrative, literary painter, and the instants of time that his hand captures always presuppose a "before" and an “after”. Time also leaves its mark on the trees, which frame the scene on the right and on the left, while also dividing it into two sections. On this side of the trees is the street, at the end of which stand three women. The two women on either side wear a long dress with a large red shawl, and headdresses that suggest a certain social status. The woman standing between them is, conversely, completely veiled in black and suggests the idea of loss, of mourning.

For that matter, the section of the scene that lies beyond the trees, and beyond the end of the road, is a cemetery, with some tombstones in view and other human figures. It is, however, a strange cemetery, without a boundary wall, without a gate, of the same nature as the cultivated fields that flank it: as if the place where the dead rest is also a planting ground, where something is destined to grow.
The very trees that frame the scene are not entirely bare. It is early spring, the leaves are beginning to re-bloom, and the fallen seeds have given life, at the foot of the larger trunks, to a thicket of suckers, of new small plants.

Looking at the picture even closer (go look it up on the Internet, it is worth it), we realize that the same path leading to the graveyard is crossed, underground, by the sinewy traces of tree roots, alive and vital. It is still cold, but the life is there, nothing can kill it.
But that is not all. The light that pervades the painting is still a wintry, twilight light. One would say Easter dawn. Yet the sun is already high, and judging by the time of year one might say it is heading toward noon. If you bring your eyes closer to the painting you can see, far below, a trace, later erased by the artist, where the sun was probably originally placed, in a position that would seem more consistent with the still dim light. But Friedrich later wanted to move the sun further up.

So the visitors to the cemetery, starting with the women in the foreground, are not just here to mourn a dead person. A hope, a foreboding moves the sad footsteps, a strange heartbeat mingles with the mourning. This is what happened one morning, two thousand years ago, when three women went to the Sepulchre and a strange man in white robes (I remember that white robes were meant for the insane) spoke puzzling words to them.

Nature itself seems to have gone mad: what is that high sun at this hour?
The great German artist helps us to read Easter thus: not as a prodigy in its own right, but rather as an impossible correspondence. The women who that morning went up to the Sepulchre, yes, had death in their hearts but an unspeakable hope lurked within their sadness. Let us go and see, they must have said to themselves, perhaps with tears in their eyes but with that unconfessed hope to place one foot behind the other.
And meanwhile, the sun is already high. This – the artist seems to want to tell us – is the life of faith, our life, poor and fragile, and yet so strangely certain, because that man who should lie in the tomb has told us and shown us: we are not made for death.

Pope Francis' words underscore the meaning of what the picture tells us: faith is not made up of speeches, demonstrations, equations. Faith is a path, everyone's path, the path of our lives, and it is along this normal path full of obstacles, grief and annoyances that God became our companion to "share this path with us and to offer us his gaze so that we might see the light within it." The Pope insists on the idea of light: God does not offer us explanations, his answer is "a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light.” It is not a light that is added to reality (a Christian is not a visionary), it is the very light of reality, which a deep obstacle – original sin– would prevent us from seeing without the continuous presence, in time and space, of an expected and, at the same time, unpredictable Grace, like that sun already high in the morning twilight.

Thus the law of life changes: not a path towards death, but a "present and permanent restart," as Fr. Giussani has always reminded us. It is not the fall that defines the person, but their continuous restart. Resumption, restart are the poor, everyday words that best translate the great word Resurrection, which would remain a wonderful legend if it did not become a possible human experience in every moment. The adult person is someone who bases their daily morality on this unimaginable gift. And so, Fr. Giussani reminds us, "every day, every hour, every minute of our lives, resurrecting, resuming, recommencing must set our path, must be the law."

Friedrich's painting is the sensitive, existential illustration of this experience at once everyday and exceptional, everyday and heroic (as St. John Paul II put it). It is still cold, the pain is still alive, but the cold and the pain are already within a new story.
As so many friends have witnessed to us, even recently, friends often young, like dear Silvia Simoncini, who leaving us – in suffering and therefore without any rhetoric – have pointed out this path of faith to us with confidence, not as a dream, but as the only, true, real road for all human beings.