How unusual that Francois Boucher, an eighteenth-century French artist known for his portraits of voluptuous women, should do an oil painting of a scene from the Gospels. His “St. Peter Attempting to Walk on Water,” which Boucher painted when he was 63 years old, now hangs at the Cathédrale Saint-Louis de Versailles.
The work depicts an incident that Matthew narrates, which happened after Jesus had performed a miracle, in which with just five loaves and two fishes, Jesus fed 5,000 people.
After he had dismissed the crowds, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and launch ahead of him for the other side of the Sea of Galilee, while he stayed behind and went up a mountain to pray.
Matthew writes: “When it was evening (Jesus) was there alone.
Meanwhile, the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea.
“When the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified. ‘It is a ghost,’ they said, and they cried out in fear. At once (Jesus) spoke to them, ‘Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Peter said to him in reply, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’
“Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how (strong) the wind was, he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately, Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’
After they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’”
For his painting, Boucher chose the moment when Peter begins to walk on the water. We can see the waves seething at his feet and above him the clouds billowing in the wind. From the boat, the other disciples watch in apprehension, as do the cherubim emerging through the gaps in the sky. Peter reaches out a hand to Jesus, who, while preparing to help, waits for Peter to summon up enough courage — and faith — to walk towards him.
Incidentally, a detail in the painting catches my attention — while Peter walks barefoot, Jesus wears sandals. But Boucher is just being true to what is reasonably predictable.
Matthew writes that Jesus stayed behind to pray, after which, later into the night, he walked across the lake towards the boat carrying the disciples. It would be strange if he left his sandals on the shore before footing it above the waves.
Boucher’s is a painting that depicts genuine emotions. Peter’s eyes display a mixture of trust and fear, and, as we know, it is his fear that wins out, but only for a while, because in the end the fear yields to a call for help, and Jesus, who is all kindness and understanding, extends his hand to him while rebuking him for his lack of faith.
What does this incident mean? St. Augustine compares the sea to the world. And the storm is “each man’s peculiar lust.”
“Thou dost love God; you walk upon the sea, and under your feet is the swelling of the world. Thou dost love the world, it will swallow you up. It only knows how to devour its lovers, not to carry them.”
In other words, it is the inner, more than the outer weather that one should mind, the tempests inside rather than outside.
“But when the world wears her smile of temporal happiness, it is as if there were no contrary wind. But do not ask upon this matter the tranquil state of the times: ask only your own lust.”
The need to look and find the turbulent night dying into an unruffled morning inside — that’s what both the serious follower of Christ, as well as the true artist, must do, the former in the cry of abandonment, the latter in the decision to transfer the landscape to a better moment on canvas, because, as Francois Boucher said, the outside world is “trop verte et mal éclairée” (too green and badly lit).