William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s work consists of over 800 paintings and focuses on classical and religious subject matter. We can appreciate his mastery of technique in this painting of “The Holy Women at the Tomb,” set on the morning of Christ’s resurrection. It illustrates well the mystery of the resurrection and is a window into the first announcement of Christ’s triumph over the grave. We will use this work to dive deeper into this particular scene and explain how the composition creates a contrast between death and life.
This scene depicts four figures, three women and an angel, completed in the Realist style. We will focus on Mark’s account of the resurrection, since his Gospel names three specific women who went to the tomb the morning of Christ’s resurrection. The Gospel writer tells us these women are, “Mary Mag′dalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salo′me” (Mk 16:1). Just three days prior, they must have experienced immeasurable distress as they witnessed Christ’s passion and death by crucifixion. Their dark clothing and expressions marked by grief illustrate the toll of his death upon them.
The event depicted in the painting takes place on the Sunday morning after the Sabbath, following Christ’s crucifixion and hurried burial, which was due to the approaching Sabbath. Jewish custom would have prevented any of Jesus’ followers from tending to his body on the Sabbath. Therefore, these women returned to Christ’s tomb to anoint his body at the first permissible moment. The Gospel tells us, “And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen” (Mk 16:2). The rising sun can be interpreted as a symbol of hope. The morning sun has also been interpreted as a symbol of rebirth by many past cultures. It seems to foreshadow what the women will encounter.