Fra Angelico's masterpiece tells us 'Do not be afraid,' says Michele Bregande
On the first Easter morning, Christ’s followers were mourning, and his despairing Apostles hid in a locked room. The broken and bloodied corpse of Jesus had been laid in a tomb, and a heavy stone blocked its entrance. But faithful women had already awoken and had left for the tomb to finish anointing the body of Christ with oil and spices. When they arrived, the stone had been rolled away; they faced an empty tomb.
This moment in the story of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection is profoundly illuminating. Here we look at a fresco of the Resurrection that focuses more on that human experience than on Christ’s glory. Why? Like most of the stunningly beautiful frescoes in the 12th-century Convent of San Marco in Florence, Fra Angelico (with his apprentice Benozzo Gozzoli) created this fresco in a cell belonging to one individual monk in 1440-42. He painted a luminous fresco in every private cell at San Marco as a means for each monk to enter into deeper meditation and prayer. For his entire life, one man lived in his cell with one image – and what depth and mystery were unveiled over those years.
Like the monk in his cell, we can reflect upon this singular human moment that occurred after the Crucifixion, but before knowledge of the Resurrection. We are drawn to these women in a very dark moment; their delicate brows are furrowed, their eyes either downcast or teary, and one woman leans over and searches deeply into the empty abyss. They are rendered so sweetly, with a soft flush on their cheeks, cherubic lips, graceful hands. Their gowns with gently flowing folds are the only rich colours other than the red cross of the Trinity on Christ’s halo. They have no understanding that Christ has risen, and their hearts and souls likely feel as empty as the tomb.
Who are these women? Though there are different accounts in the Gospels as to who was present, what’s most important is to recognise that the first visitors to the tomb were women. In the time of Christ, women were marginalised, expected to deal only with matters of the home. Jesus broke every rule by associating with, healing, forgiving and including women in his midst. Women wept at the foot of his Cross, and now women come to the empty tomb. There they are greeted by an angel who says: “Do not be afraid.” This is the second time that a woman in the life of Christ is greeted by an angel with those very words: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”
Do not be afraid! The first time the angel of God spoke those words was when Mary said “Yes” to become the mother of the Son of God. With her fiat, she became the perfect model of the feminine gift of receptivity. Her empty womb fills with life – not just any life, but with the redemptive Christ. Now, while the women approach the empty tomb with fear and confusion, the angel of God again speaks these words: “Do not be afraid.” He points one finger into the dark tomb, and the other toward the risen Christ, whose light and glory the women still do not see. But they understand; from out of the dark tomb, Jesus has again come into the world as new life.
By design, women are life-bearers. Regardless of whether a woman bears a child, human lives are entrusted to her care. By her very nature she is created to be receptive to others in body, mind, and spirit; and she is created to bear life – whether by carrying a baby, or bearing other life-giving fruits for the world.
Women are receptive to carrying other people’s needs, sorrows, and joys. The feminine gifts of sensitivity and generosity bring women back to the tomb to minister to the body of Christ. Their understanding that there can be life even within the most hidden depths, and that emptiness can be filled with love and joy, suddenly makes it clear: this empty tomb offered up new and redeeming life. And they run to share this astounding news to the men.
That day began with darkness, emptiness and confusion. As we celebrate Easter, recall that an empty tomb was the first sign that Christ had risen. And perhaps, when we experience darkness or emptiness in our own body, mind or spirit, think back to this image of the women at the empty tomb. Even the darkest abyss holds a promise of new life, our own emptiness can be filled with grace, and with death comes eternal life – as promised by the glorious Resurrection of Christ.
Michele Bregande is an artist and former arts and museum educator