What Three Women and Two Men Witnessed at the Empty Tomb

“They saw and believed” says John’s Gospel, although “they still did not understand” (20:8-9).

LEFT: Annibale Carracci, “The Women at Christ’s Tomb,” 1590s. RIGHT: Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, “St. John and St. Peter at Christ’s Tomb,” ca. 1640.
LEFT: Annibale Carracci, “The Women at Christ’s Tomb,” 1590s. RIGHT: Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, “St. John and St. Peter at Christ’s Tomb,” ca. 1640. (photo: Public Domain)

Happy Easter! On Easter, the Church offers us two Gospels. Mark’s account (16:1-7) of the encounter of Mary Magdalene and the other women with the angel at Christ’s tomb is read at the Easter Vigil. The reading for Mass on Easter Day is John’s account (20:1-9) of Peter’s and John’s race to the empty tomb after learning from Mary Magdalene that Jesus was gone. Because today is the heart of the Christian mystery and the Church’s liturgical year, you get a two-fer: a commentary on both texts.

Mark recounts how three women — Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome — go at dawn to Christ’s tomb with spices to anoint his body. His burial on Friday had been rushed ahead of the Sabbath, “which was a solemn feast day that year,” and so the trio has come to finish the job. They are preoccupied with a practical problem: how to open the tomb, sealed by a large rock, whose removal was beyond their strength. To their surprise, they find the tomb open and are amazed by a white-robed angel sitting there. The angel tells them not to be surprised, then proclaims the central truth of the Christian message: Jesus, the crucified one, is risen! The women are given a message: to tell “the disciples and Peter” that the Risen One will meet them in Galilee. 

What the Vigil Gospel omits is that the women’s reaction is to be scared out of their wits and (at least initially) to say nothing to anyone (9:8). 

John tells us Mary did tell Peter and John, although the Johannine account mentions Mary seeing only the empty tomb, not the angel. Peter and John run to the tomb, the younger John outpacing Peter, getting there first, and looking but not going in. Peter then arrives and enters, and both see the grave clothes lying there, with the head covering separate. John follows. They saw and “believed,” although they “did not yet understand the Scripture that he must rise from the dead” (v. 9). Both then calmly go home. (As John continues, Mary remains at the tomb, then encounters two angels and then Jesus.)

The Gospel writers do not attempt to tamper with the testimony. Remember that the Gospels first were part of the oral tradition about Jesus’ life, Passion, death, and Resurrection, and only subsequently came to be written down. When the Holy Spirit filled the Apostles on Pentecost, they went out and preached; they didn’t retire to corners of the Upper Room and write. So what we have is how the Christian Church, protected by the Holy Spirit, remembered it. 

The obvious first reaction of people to an empty tomb and missing body would be one of surprise. Remember that Mark repeatedly insists (as does John in today’s reading) that the Apostles “still” did not understand what “to rise from the dead” meant. They will, once they encounter the Risen Christ. That is yet to happen. And, once it does, they will have encountered the Who that gives their faith sense, meaning and truth (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-20). 

Annibale Carracci’s “The Women at Christ’s Tomb” is a Baroque oil painting now in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum. The three women are clearly surprised to find the open tomb, attended by an angel. The angel, clad in pure white, points to the empty tomb as he informs them: “He has been raised; he is not here. Behold, the place where they laid him,” a place known to Mary Magdalene. 

The women are clearly surprised and amazed. Both the one on the left and the middle one express it with their hand gestures. The position of their hands and feet draw us to look at Christ’s empty tomb: the hands raised in surprise also serve to “reach out” to the viewer, while the angles of all the visible feet (including the angel’s) move our eye leftward, toward the empty tomb. So, too, does the angel’s leg, whose knee and elbow align, leading to the finger indicating the empty tomb. The same is true of the body posture of the woman in the foreground, which is mirrored by the angel’s — again, moving the eye leftward to the indicative finger.

In keeping with Baroque convention the women, as the focal point of the event, are “larger-than-life” and physically powerful. Their vivid colors contrast to the otherwise dark background of the painting, including the still-breaking dawn and the light color of the stones in the grave. Color complementarity is apparent: the woman in the center and the angel harmonize in grayish-white and white, while the two in the background pose bold reds and blues with a splash of gold, the latter harmonizing with the woman’s blonde hair (which pales next to the golden hair of the angel). 

One commentary suggests that the “lady in red” is Mary Magdalene, a view I would be inclined to share. It’s been said that one reason painters sometimes avoid depicting Mary Magdalene is because, if they include her, she is going to be the most beautiful woman in the scene — and, if that’s true, Carracci clearly is showcasing her with her striking colors and unveiled head whose hair complements the angel’s. Another reason is that she’s the closest to the tomb, as befits the prominence she receives in the Gospel’s Easter accounts, and she has a firm grasp on the vessel bearing the spices, consistent with the initiative she shows in those texts. 

Giovanni Romanelli’s “St. Peter and St. John at Christ’s Tomb,” held by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, illustrates our second Gospel. Romanelli worked slightly later than Carracci — his painting might be up to 40 years later. Likewise in the Baroque style, we see the older Peter and the younger John standing inside Christ’s open tomb. The container in which his body lay is open, the burial garments visible. St. Peter’s finger likewise indicates the two pieces of evidence: the winding sheets that are laid aside and the vacant sarcophagus. 

Again, in keeping with Baroque conventions, the two Apostles dominate the scene in bright and complementary colors (green versus blue robes and brighter wraps). The blue of Peter’s robe also complements the blue of the sky, which gives the painting a slightly brighter background than Carracci’s. The folds of their wraps contrast directionally with the folds of Jesus’ shroud, creating a unified vision that points to the Resurrection by showing us three sets of body wear but only two bodies. The Apostles’ leaning rightward also complements the leftward slant of the sarcophagus, again setting focus on the testimony of the empty container and burial clothes … as well as on Peter. 

Peter, as befits the one first to enter the Tomb, is the one closest to the sarcophagus and the one whose face is more illuminated. He also deserves focus, because his first entry to the Tomb is appropriate for the one who is to lead the Apostles, the one who must first believe, the first pope who, “when converted, must confirm your brothers in the faith” (Luke 22:32). 

“They saw and believed” says John’s Gospel, although “they still did not understand” (20:8-9). Surprise and amazement, puzzlement yet faith seem all apparent on their faces. They’re still in for a wild few hours, as all sorts of reports hit them, one after the other: Mary’s encounters, the disciples who rushed back from Emmaus and, later that evening, the Risen One himself.