The art essay

The Holy Women at the Tomb of Christ (1890) by William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905)

William Bouguereau painted The Holy Women at the Tomb during one of the noisier moments of France’s history. The Eiffel Tower had just been constructed with its iron girders, mechanized elevators, and electric lights; a modern symbol of how man with his ambition, engineering, and ingenuity could penetrate the boundaries of heaven itself. Over on Montmartre, the Moulin Rouge cabaret was opened the same year, where painter Toulouse-Lautrec captured the clattering of the heels on the wooden boards and the festive blare of music in jarring acidic color. At the foot of the nearly completed Sacré-Cœur Basilica, Parisians were trying to create their own heaven on earth, where the frenetic search for pleasure masked spiritual desolation.

Bouguereau, amid the modern cacophony, captured the silence in which the greatest event in human history took place. At dawn, in that quiet hour before the world wakes, three women have made their way to the tomb of Christ. Their robes are heavy, with muted colors, and the figures seem insulated from any disturbance from the outside world. The cries and clangs of the crucifixion are done—now, the soldiers and the lances and nails and angry crowds are gone, and the three mourning women seem like a footnote to the main event.

Awe at the Resurrection

The story is just beginning, however. The three women gather around the doorway to the tomb. The first to catch our eye is the kneeling figure whose dainty bare foot offers a sanitized version of one of Caravaggio’s favorite motifs. Her back fully toward us, she indicates our place in the story. We feel like spectators arriving on the scene. Her sharply turned head and the angular pose of her body alert us that something is happening. We approach to get a closer look.

Black robes trace the somber silhouette of the next woman kneeling at the doorway. Her dusky mulberry sleeve and skirt, peeking out from the dark outerwear, hint that there is more to this scene than meets the eye. A bright light falls on her face and limbs, and we notice the tension in her clasped hands and her slightly opened mouth, as if she’s gasping in surprise. Following her gaze, we see opalescent light glowing from the tomb. An angel appears faintly in the light, his arm raised. He is not here, for he has been raised (Mt 28:6). We catch our first glimpse of the greatest miracle of all.

The last figure stands still, closest to the opening of the tomb. Draped in an inky blue robe, she resembles a curtain, drawn open to reveal the awesome sight. Her pale hand clutches the wall while her other arm draws the eye to her luminous face. She appears to be less unsettled by the event, as if she is overwhelmed with understanding.

Mystery surrounds the identity of these three women, sometimes called the three Marys: Mark identifies them in his Gospel as Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James, and Salome; other Gospel writers describe them more vaguely. Mary, mother of James, cited in both Mark and Luke, is most likely the startled woman kneeling in front of us, occupying only a slightly more privileged position in the scene. Mary Magdalene, mentioned by all the Evangelists, wears red, the color usually associated with her, although Bouguereau has subdued it from scarlet into an earthier shade. Her dramatic gestures and expression invite us to try and enter the awe and amazement of discovering that Christ, who was crucified, died, and was buried, has returned from the dead. Her pose evokes hearing the new sound that will drown out the cacophony of the last few days, that of rejoicing at Jesus’ victory over death.

Gate of Heaven

The last figure leaves room for both speculation and contemplation. Most scholars believe that Mary, Mother of God, was absent from the tomb—which Saint John Paul II thought could indicate that she had already met Jesus, who may have appeared to her first. But there is an old tradition, recorded in art, that places her at the grave. Artists such as 15th-century German painter Hubert van Eyck (brother of the more famous Jan Van Eyck) and Bolognese Annibale Carracci (founder of the most important artistic school of the Catholic restoration) chose to paint the Virgin Mary at the tomb.

Bouguereau’s mysterious woman at the threshold reacts differently from her counterparts. She gazes not at the angel but toward the site where the body lay. She sees his absence more than she hears the angel, and, as she raises her hand to her head, it seems that Mary, after a lifetime in which she watched her Son and kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart (Lk 2:19), has finally understood the full picture of Jesus’ mission. Our Lady, “Gate of Heaven,” stands at the portal of the Resurrection.

By 1890, Bouguereau’s star was beginning to wane. The loss of his wife and four of his five children had ravaged his personal life and, on the professional front, younger, hungry artists such as Manet, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Monet were gaining ground with their spontaneous and highly individualized painting. One critic, tired of sacred subjects and meticulous craftsmanship, yawned in front of the work, “He always paints the same thing.”

While the models may have been the same as his earlier nymphs and angels, his storytelling was not. A lifetime of study allowed Bouguereau to use color, composition, and perspective to navigate the viewer through first surprise, then awe, and ultimately contemplation of the mystery of the Resurrection.

Elizabeth Lev

Writer and professor of art history in Rome, Italy


The Holy Women at the Tomb of Christ (1890), William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium. © Bridgeman Images / Lukas – Art in Flanders VZW.