3rd Sunday Easter (C) John 21:1-19

Conrad Witz, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes and Call of Peter, 1443-4, Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva

The Gospel reading for the 3rd Sunday of Easter year C is taken from the scene at the end of John’s Gospel where Jesus meets some of the apostles fishing with Peter in Galilee, as if the Resurrection had never happened. They fail to find fish all night until Jesus, whose identity is hidden, instructs them from the land at dawn and they not only net a large catch, but are recalled to mission by the Lord over a breakfast meal. Peter’s relationship to Jesus is central here.

The first part of the story is close to the account of the miraculous catch in the ministry of Jesus in Chapter 5 of St Luke’s Gospel, depicted by Raphael in his cartoon for the first of the Sistine chapel tapestries and to other places where Peter is singled out or commissioned-the walking on water incident is very close.(Mark 6:4552), but  it is distinct, too.

Paintings are expressions  of the Gospel in paint, and offer another way into reflection on the scripture. They also reflect the theological interpretations of the time in which they were made. Conrad Witz’ painting above, based on John 21, is one of the exterior wing panels of the altarpiece of the Cathedral of Geneva. It is signed and dated 1444 and offers a way into the issue of church authority of the day. This is described in Molly Teasdale-Smith’s article: ‘Conrad Witz and the Council of Basel’ ( Art Bulletin vol 52, No 2 1970 pp150-6) – available through JSTOR read-online arrangement.

The background to the painting is that during the years 1433 and 1445 authority in the church was held in a balance between the Council of Basel and Pope Eugenius IV, with the Prince of Savoy, Amadeus III, reconciler of kings and a hermit, being elected Pope Felix by the Council during the dispute, while Pope Eugenius was in still Rome. It was not simply a northern precursor of the Reformation. In the early days, the Archbishop of Palermo supported the council, Piccolomini, who later became Pius II wrote of the Council representing the true church in 1433 and Nicholas of Cusa, also present, likewise. After the second session, all documents began with a preamble that the council  ‘takes its power directly from Christ’. However, the Council’s support and authority waned eventually.  The Council held its last session in 1443 (the year before Witz dated the panel) and Felix abdicated in 1445 when Frederick III recognised Eugenius IV.

The Cathedral at Geneva was dedicated to St Peter in Chains, which had been made a Solemn feast day in Savoy in 1426. The altarpiece consisted of several works by Witz featuring St Peter. It was commisioned by the Cardinal Archbishop Mies, (who had become one of Pope Felix’ cardinals). The altarpiece consisted of the above painting which is the left exterior wing panel, the left interior wing panel of the Epiphany; the right exterior panel of St Peter’s Release from Prison, and a painting on the interior right of  St Peter presenting Cardinal Mies to Our Lady.  These were around a central panel.

The Miraculous Draught is the most remarkable. It is distinct from the others for its landscape background, one of the great early Renaissance landscapes, which quite accurately reflects the view from the shoreline of Lake Leman, while containing certain symbolic elements and arrangements. Peter shown in the water is lined up with the tower, whilst Christ is lined up with the mountain, a reference to the Ascension, but an interesting juxtaposition of the flimsy tower with the solidity of the Mountain. Significantly, perhaps, there are knights of Savoy bearing the coat of arms of Pope Felix which move towards the tower.

In view of the transitional period in which it was painted when the Council was losing its authority, it is difficult to exactly read the contemporary situation into the painting. Witz was certainly aware of Mies’ position and probably familiar with the intense reflection on scripture and patristic commentary which took place during and out of the Council on passages about the Petrine authority. Teasdale Smith makes an original point about the six apostles rather than seven in the boat and Christ in the water rather than on the shore, that this refers to a sixth unfinished age, in contrast to St Augustine’s commentary on the passage, which saw the seven apostles as representing the end of time, and Christ on the shore as eternity.

St Peter in the water in Witz’ painting seems reminiscent of the sinking St Peter from the scene in St Mark’s gospel, especially since Christ seems to be on the water too. Is that an intentional conflation, and an allusion to the dependency of Peter on trust in Christ?  Christ looms large and monumental in the painting. It his instruction which guides the apostles, and who Peter looks to. Maybe this is the abiding message of the Council and of the Gospel, too.

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