The Dead Live: The Easter hope of Maurice Denis's 'Three Marys'

After someone I love has died, I often find myself unconsciously waiting for that person. I still expect Msgr. Philip Murnion, my longtime colleague at the National Pastoral Life Center, for example, to whistle his way to my office, put his arm around me and whoever else is present and tell a funny story that elicits a hearty laugh.

Long after the death of friends and family, we still relate to the people we love. We carry them inside us, and they come to us because death cannot erase their presence, their imprint on us, the effects of their kindness, which shape our actions and our future. Death cannot diminish even the smell of their cologne or perfume. The dead live.


The gauze curtain hanging between life and death allows us to encounter our loved ones as through a glass, darkly. That gauziness is a God-given mercy fortifying our belief in the hereafter and sustaining us in the present.

But how would I feel if I saw one of my beloved friends who had died, standing before me in the way the Gospel writers describe Jesus appearing to his friends? In these accounts (Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20) the women first, then Peter and John saw Jesus’ empty tomb. Of course, all of the disciples knew of the torturous circumstances of his death. But to see him, speak with him, embrace him, eat with him again—that is something of an ideal, a deep human longing for the beloved dead realized once in history. Such an experience is not easy to put in words.

The world needs artists who can explore mystery and present the most puzzling spiritual truths using color, shape and line. Artists may not resolve our theological questions, but they can create a world for us to enter. I like to step into such art and linger there as a conscious act of reflection. Lent and Easter invite such mini-retreats as this “laying on of eyes” provides.

Take this image by Maurice Denis (1870-1943), an artist from Saint-Germain-en-Laye, outside Paris. Six figures in white occupy the foreground. The two on the left motion to the three women and the child on the right. We cannot tell whether they are waving good-bye or saying hello. Nor is it apparent who these figures are. What we can see is that they are outdoors on a lovely morning as the sun rises over a hillside, bathing in strong light the trees, full of white blossoms, and the facades of red-roofed, white houses. The mood is bright, the scene full of light, the morning quiet.

We seem to be in a French village, perhaps in Denis’s hometown. The blossoms betoken spring, but the bare trees with a few red leaves seem autumnal. We cannot pin down the season, the place or even the historical period. Nothing about the women’s style of dress identifies them. The gender of the two on the left is not clear. Perhaps, then, these are not the actual residents of any particular town; residents would not be dressed all alike or in such garments at dawn. And the townspeople are conspicuously missing.

But wait. Denis guides our eyes down a path toward the garden wall to two other figures: a woman in deep blue apparel kneels before a standing red-headed figure in white; the glowing hair reflects so boldly on the robe that it looks almost orange. What is going on?

This oil painting is often called “Three Marys at the Tomb.” It was painted in 1894 by a 24-year-old artist with deep religious sensibilities. Denis, who followed on the heels of the Impressionists, was not interested in presenting a historical or realistic image of the women at Jesus’ tomb.

Denis has not given us Jerusalem, but the French countryside. He has not shown us male angels with wings but androgynous, shrouded figures (left). Nor has he shown us a tomb, nor details to distinguish one Mary from the others, nor the spices and ointments the Scriptures mention, since the women had come to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. These women are empty-handed, though they have brought a child—a charming, imaginative touch. The generic angels imply that any messenger might be an angel; the generic women imply that even women like you and me, or women from our town or city block could be there. And while the landscape may have been specific, recognizable to the artist’s peers, for those who view it today it is symbolic. It shows modernity, our time, not history. Denis used white for dazzling clothing and the light of a new, post-resurrection dawn.

How astounding to see Jesus portrayed as a frizzy redhead, the warm red color projecting itself forward. Even though he is small in size and set in the distance, Jesus holds his own at the center of this painting largely because of his improbably red hair.

The foreground figures seem to represent one of several versions of the story (since the Gospel accounts differ). The intimate moment near the garden wall, however, comes from John’s account, which gives Mary Magdalene a cameo moment with Christ. Ironically, the Magdalene has often been portrayed as a redhead, based on a mistaken notion throughout Christian history that she had been a prostitute. Recent scholarship makes plain that she was not; the woman in Scripture forgiven by Jesus for her flagrant sins was someone else. Whoever Mary Mag-dalene was, Jesus is said to have appeared to her and spoken to her. She did not recognize him at first, but—in a detail that makes John’s rendering both unforgettable and convincing—she recognized him by the way he said her name. It was then that a woman’s voice echoed down the annals of history, witnessing to the resurrection, “I have seen the Lord.”

In Genesis the human story begins in a garden. In these Gospel accounts, it reaches its climax in a garden as well. In this garden, the one who willingly faced crucifixion, died and was buried, left his tomb and all of death’s attempts to constrain him, and appeared to the women who loved him. He came in his glorified new flesh to greet his sisters and brothers one morning and drenched the world for all time in his light.

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