The Passion of Christ

The Resurrection

  The Resurrection of Christ is both a problem and an opportunity for artists. The problem is that the actual moment when Christ left the tomb is not described; the event is simply reported by angels. Did the resurrected Christ simply walk out of the tomb, or did he float skywards in a bright cloud? Both possibilities appear in art, as I will discuss below.
  One important gospel element included in most paintings comes from Matthew:

  'Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate, Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first. Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can. So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch.
Ch 28
 In the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men. And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you.'
                                                                                                                                      Matthew 27 from verse 62, then verse 28 1 - 7

  The watch, presented as a group of soldiers, is nearly always there, slumped on the ground, though often they appear to be sleeping happily rather than overcome by shock.
  This element as painted, though, rather contradicts the gospel narrative. The appearance of the angel that causes the watch to become ‘as dead men’, and the rolling back of the stone, was to show to the women that Christ was no longer there, not to release Christ from the tomb. The Resurrection itself took place earlier - ‘He is not here’ says the angel, 'he is risen'.

    But there is a contradiction in the Matthew text too.  If, as this gospel suggests, this moment is the first time the rock has been rolled back, and yet the Resurrection has already happened, how did the physical body of Christ leave the tomb? It could be argued, perhaps, that the Resurrection happened a split second before the women arrived, but this is not how it reads.  If a more straight-forward narrative is looked for, go to Mark; the women go to to tomb and find the stone rolled back, but no soldiers. Convincing, but fewer opportunities for artists.
  On to some pictures, and it's tempting to settle for just one - This fresco by Piero della Francesca. Who needs anything else?

  This painting is well worth the journey - pilgrimage if you like - to Sansepolcro. It is in the Museo Civico, but, unusually, this was the building it was actually painted for, originally the equivalent of a town hall.  The painting is so important to the town that is is visible through a glass door even when the museum is closed. The twentieth century tale of how the building - and the fresco - survived the Second World War is an inspiring one. A British soldier - Anthony Clarke - had read Aldous Huxley's description of of the Fresco as the best picture in the World. When he was ordered to bombard Sansepolcro, he refused to do so. He got away with this disobedience and has become something of a local hero, and there is now a 'Via Anthony Clarke' in Sansepolcro - something of a mouthful, perhaps, for local Italians.
  Clearly there is no rock-cut tomb in Piero's image, and I have discussed in the page on the Entombment why an altar-like sarcophagus was considered more appropriate. But not always; these two images stick to the original story.

Giovanni Bellini: Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Benvenuto di Giovanni: National Gallery of Art, Washington

  These images raise two more issues. A few versions of the Resurrection show the soldiers lying crushed under the stone, or the sarcophagus lid in the case of the Benvenuto. This has no biblical authority whatever, though no doubt viewers would have enjoyed the rather humorous element. 
  The second issue refers back to the rather off-hand comment I made at the top off the page. In the Benvenuto, Christ walks from the tomb; in the Bellini, he ascends into the sky. The distinction is perhaps more theologically significant than it first appears. 
  The key to the Resurrection story is that Christ returns as a living man; this is the heart of the story of the meeting on the road to Emmaus.  Christ is no ghost. Bellini's image is more suggestive of the Ascension, Christ as a spiritual rather that a physical being; Christ is literally risen.  The two natures of Christ - Human and spiritual - is shown in various ways in art, but here shouldn't the human side be emphasised? 
    The gospel stories can't help here - artists - or those commissioning the paintings - had to make up their own minds how the resurrection itself would be portrayed.

Some more images

Andrea Mantegna: Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours

An ingenious solution to the tomb/sarcophagus problem: a sarcophagus in a rock-cut tomb.

Pietro Lorenzetti: Lower church, San Francesco, Assisi

Master of the Osservanza: Institute of Arts, Detroit

Hans Memling: Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest

Passion index 
                                                                                                   Home page - explore the site