Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, "St. John and St. Peter at Christ's Tomb" (detail), 1640. © Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Easter Poster: The loving affirmation of reality

Simon Peter and John recoil in front of the empty tomb. The story of the image that accompanies Fr. Giussani's words in this year’s Easter poster.
Giuseppe Frangi

"Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in.” The "other disciple" is of course John, younger and more athletic. He himself, a direct witness, reconstructs the events of that day with precise details in chapter 20 of his Gospel. Some decades had passed, he too had grown old, but the memory of what had happened was still intact, not least because what had happened had become "an event of life, that is, a story": "'Christ is risen' is to affirm that reality is positive; it is to lovingly affirm reality" (Fr. Giussani).

Easter Poster 2021

Rome, 1640: among the many artists called to work in a city that Pope Urban VIII, Umberto Barberini, had transformed into a colossal construction site, was Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, originally from Viterbo. He was a very reliable artist, who had assimilated the grammar of the Baroque that had become the language through which Rome, the heart of Catholicism, revealed its universal vocation. It was the Rome of Bernini, the great and very successful sculptor, whom Urban VIII had forced to "profoundly and irreversibly change his identity", as Tomaso Montanari wrote. Bernini, in fact, reinvented himself as an architect and urban planner and took the reins to redesign the city. The Baroque exploded as a public language, of a Rome that spoke to the world.

"Ultimately, people–young and not so young–need one thing: the certainty of the positivity of their time and of their lives, the certainty of their destiny. To say 'Christ is risen' is to affirm that reality is positive; it is to lovingly affirm reality"

Romanelli was instead at the court of the other protagonist of Urban VIII’s Rome, Pietro da Cortona. He had worked with the master on the site of the phantasmagorical ceiling of Palazzo Barberini, completed in 1639. But the Pope did not only have at heart great enterprises. In fact, Romanelli was commissioned to paint something very small and very private: a painting of little more than 38 by 46 centimeters, executed in oil on a silver-plated copper plate. The subject requested, a truly rare subject, is taken from that autobiographical passage in the Gospel of John: the two apostles have just arrived at the tomb; Peter, who led the way, has seen for himself that the tomb is empty. He then turns to his younger friend as if to ask what might have happened. It is the moment of recoil, of a fright that turns into astonishment; a state of mind that the artist with simplicity, almost as if he were drawing the storyboard of a film, synthesizes in the gesture of John's hands with open palms and in his wide-eyed stare. Urban VIII, as attested by the deed of payment dated October 20, 1641, commissioned two versions of the same subject from Romanelli, a sign of his personal affection for that passage from the Gospel of John. In the second version (of the same dimensions, again on copper, found at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge), an angel, somewhat to the side, appears alongside the apostles.

"Without Christ’s Resurrection, there is only one possibility: nothingness. Christ makes Himself present as the Risen one in every period of time, throughout the whole of history. The Spirit of Jesus, that is to say the Word made flesh, becomes an experience possible for ordinary man, in His power to redeem the whole existence of each person and human history, in the radical change that He produces in the one who encounters Him and, like John and Andrew, follows Him"
There is one last detail to observe: the landscape that can be seen on the right side of the painting. It is a glimpse of the Roman countryside, perhaps in the direction of the lakes. A simple device to emphasize that indeed, as Fr. Giussani testifies, "Christ makes himself present as the Risen One in every period of time, throughout the whole of history".

Easter Poster 2021