Arts essay: Why artists shy away from the Resurrection

Piero della Francesca’s famous fresco shows a classically muscular Risen Christ

The central event of Christian faith is the Resurrection of Christ from the dead, celebrated with great solemnity every year since the beginning of Christian history in the liturgical feast of Easter. Yet the Resurrection is less frequently represented in Christian art than other subjects, such as the Madonna and Child or the Crucifixion, and it is natural to ask why artists and patrons have been reticent in exploring this fundamental theme.

A first obvious answer is that, while all can easily relate to images of a baby in his mother’s arms, or to depictions of human suffering (for we have all been babies and have all known some measure of suffering), resurrection from the dead is difficult to imagine. It is indeed the hardest thing Christians are asked to believe, running counter to all known experience.

And the second answer, closely related to the first, is that the Scriptures, which provide most of the information on which Christian art draws, do not in any way describe the Resurrection, but simply announce it. The angel who rolled away the stone sealing the tomb tells the women come to anoint Christ: “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said he would. Come and see the place where he lay” (Matthew 28:5-6).

And that is how older art depicts the event: women beside a tomb from which an angel makes his announcement. A superb 4th-century ivory relief in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich adds several details of great interest, depicting, in place of the usual sarcophagus, a domed mausoleum structure, meant to evoke the domed Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It shows sleeping guards, as described in the Gospels (Matthew 27:65-66); and, on a hill that rises behind the mausoleum, a figure of Christ ascending, his right hand firmly gripped by the hand of God the Father, emerging from the clouds. Finally, on the other side of the mausoleum, the anonymous carver adds a tree in full leaf with nesting birds, in apparent allusion to the rebirth of nature in the season when Easter normally occurs, spring.

The Munich ivory is truly unusual for its wealth of detail, and throughout the Middle Ages the Resurrection is normally communicated in art by the empty tomb alone, on which an angel is shown speaking to three “holy women”. Artists sometimes add the “linen cloths lying on the ground” mentioned in St John’s Gospel (20:6). This iconographic formula emerged out of a dramatic trope performed in monastic churches from the 11th century on, the Quem Quaeritis sequence, in which the “angel” asked the “women”: “Whom are you seeking?” (Quem quaeritis). At their response – “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified” – the angel announced: “He is not here, he is risen!”. At which the angel and the women, together with the monks, sang “Alleluia!” This little drama was performed at the altar, which served to evoke the sepulchre.

Later developments in the representation of the Resurrection are also related to sacred theatre, and specifically to 15th-century “special effects”, such as trapdoors allowing actors to suddenly emerge from below stage. Meister Francke’s 1424 Resurrection scene in the Hamburg Kunsthalle shows a rather athletic Saviour clambering out of his tomb amid sleeping guards. And Piero della Francesca’s famous fresco, in the town hall of his native city, named for Christ’s tomb – Borgo San Sepolcro – shows a classically muscular Risen Lord, half in, half out of the sepulchre, the banner of his victory held high. In the hilly landscape behind Christ the trees at the viewer’s left are bare, those at his right in full leaf, so that as we read the image (from left to right) we see the Risen Christ between winter’s cold and the warmth of spring.

The most dramatic older Resurrection is that in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, now at Colmar, where Christ bursts from the tomb in a thermonuclear explosion of light, trailing a long white cloth meant to recall the Shroud, devotion to which spread throughout Europe from the mid-15th century onward.

There are, of course, many other iconographical subjects involving the Risen Christ: the Noli me tangere, with Mary Magdalene who seeks to embrace the resurrected Lord; the Supper at Emmaus; the Incredulity of St Thomas, with the Apostle who puts his hand in Christ’s side, and so on. But the very moment and the specific manner of Christ’s rising remain among the mysteries Christians accept on faith: things no eye has seen nor ear heard, things “the human mind cannot visualise: all that God has prepared for those that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). That is what Easter is: all that God has prepared for those that love him.

Mgr Timothy Verdon, a canon of Florence Cathedral, is a historian of Christian art and director of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (the Cathedral Foundation Museum)