Saint Peter Invited to Walk on the Water,
Painted by Francois Boucher (1703-1770),
Painted in 1766,
Oil on canvas,
© Cathédrale Saint-Louis, Versailles, France
Peter started walking towards Jesus across the water
Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side while he would send the crowds away. After sending the crowds away he went up into the hills by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, while the boat, by now far out on the lake, was battling with a heavy sea, for there was a head-wind. In the fourth watch of the night he went towards them, walking on the lake, and when the disciples saw him walking on the lake they were terrified. ‘It is a ghost’ they said, and cried out in fear. But at once Jesus called out to them, saying, ‘Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid.’ It was Peter who answered. ‘Lord,’ he said ‘if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.’ ‘Come’ said Jesus. Then Peter got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus across the water, but as soon as he felt the force of the wind, he took fright and began to sink. ‘Lord! Save me!’ he cried. Jesus put out his hand at once and held him. ‘Man of little faith,’ he said ‘why did you doubt?’ And as they got into the boat the wind dropped. The men in the boat bowed down before him and said, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’
Having made the crossing, they came to land at Gennesaret. When the local people recognised him they spread the news through the whole neighbourhood and took all that were sick to him, begging him just to let them touch the fringe of his cloak. And all those who touched it were completely cured.
Reflection on the altar painting
The painter we are looking at today, François Boucher, was perfectly attuned to his audience, supplying them with frivolous, boudoir paintings, celebrating colour, emotion and playfulness. Supplier to the Royal courts of France (our painting is still housed at Versailles), he painted primarily what his patrons wanted to see. Although Boucher is more known for his sensuous paintings, this one shows a more restrained and more serious side. The edges of the canvas are dark. It is night. The sea is wild. The angels look down from the heavens. Saint Peter has left the boat and 'started walking towards Jesus across the water, but as soon as he felt the force of the wind, he took fright and began to sink. "Lord! Save me!" he cried'. Jesus is now putting out his hand. Peter looks at Jesus in total dependence. It is a moment of spiritual union for the two friends. The other disciples are looking away from the scene, afraid still of the rough seas and the storm.
I love the figure of Peter depicted in our painting. Always the adventurous disciple, he wanted to show his trust and love for Christ in a remarkable way. He reasoned that if Jesus was able to walk on the water, surely Jesus would let him do the same. At first, all was well: Peter walked right up to Jesus, keeping entirely focussed on him. But then we are told he felt the force of the wind and started to sink. He took his eyes off his friend, lost focus and started questioning things. What am I doing in the middle of the Sea of Galilee walking on water? How strong is this storm? Will I survive? Will I make it to Jesus? We all identify with Peter. But Jesus didn't let him drown even one little bit to teach him a lesson. No, we are told Jesus put out his hand at once and held him… as we sink into our own seas of worries at times, Jesus grasps us by the hand… All we have to do is keep our focus on him.
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I love this gospel and your reflection Patrick. The painting, not so much…
I love the compassion on the face of Jesus
And the trust in Peter’s?
The fear of letting go, to trust ……..
Today we won’t even get out of the boat, as we put our trust so much in material, concrete things.