Jesus is risen!
Artists struggle to portray the Resurrection. How do you show something that nobody saw, or could imagine? Or angels, who were symbols of communication between God and people? Or Jesus, who was dead but was now said to be living?
Simon Dewey, 'He Lives'
This sort of realistic painting, showing a triumphant Christ, is disparaged by the Art cognoscenti, but it is very popular, and in fact Simon Dewey is one of the most visible religious artists of the late 20th century. Its message is strong and direct: Christ is risen, he is the Saviour. The stone is rolled away, and darkness and death are behind him.
Bramantino, The Resurrected Christ, 1490
Bramantino (circa 1465-1535)
was a Lombard painter and architect whose real name was Bartolomeo
Suardi. His works were noted for their fine architectural backgrounds -
though there is little evidence of this in 'The Resurrected Christ'. If
anything, it is the face, body and cloak that have an architectural
quality, evidence of careful draughtsmanship. Bramantino was trying to capture the image of a perfect man - perfect in
form, in intellect, and compassion. At the same time, his 'Resurrected Christ' is a man who has passed
through death and is now detached, no longer part of the world that we,
the living, inhabit.
Two disciples (Peter and John) at the tomb, Henry Ossawa Tanner
'The Resurrection', Carl Heinrich Bloch
Carl Bloch was a well-known and popular Danish artist in the 19th century. He painted a series of works on the Life of Christ, which are now housed in the Frederiksborg Palace, Denmark. His paintings would not please art aficionados today - the figures in them are too clean, calm and European. They do not express the gritty reality of Jesus' life, but rather an ideal. This does not cater to the 21st century's craving for historical reality. But the best of his pictures are quite beautiful, as this example shows.
Harbingers of the Resurrection, Nikolay Gay, 1867
Gay/Ge was a brilliant thinker and painter who was, in his later paintings, out of step with his times. His first paintings were safe conventional scenes - 'Solomon's Judgement' for example is indistinguishable from hundreds of other religious paintings being done at the time.
As Gay aged, however, he began to produce works that were savage, distraught and deeply offensive to many people. His 'Christ and Pilate' (1890) shown above was banned as blasphemous, and his 'Crucifixion' was more harrowing and realistic than people wanted to see.
'Harbingers of the Resurrection' is somewhere in between. Soldiers shrouded in darkness slink away from a discarded, broken cross; their purpose is done. The sky and the angel/Christ-figure both throb with life, but they fail to light up the faces of the soldiers or the dark fortress at the right of the picture. They are harbingers only, not the real thing - that is only just beginning.
The Risen Christ, Ambrogio de Stefano Borgognone, 1510
Serenity. Acceptance. Calm. A delicate naturalism. And a certain sadness. These were the qualities that Borgognone presented in his painting of the Risen Christ. The God/Man he shows is no longer troubled by the cares of his turbulent life. He has passed beyond this, into his glory.
Fresco, Resurrection of Christ and the Women at the Tomb, Fra Angelico, 1440
Oh, to have been a Dominican
monk living in the Convent of San Marco, Florence in the late 15th
century. The walls of the dormitories and cells were
painted with wonderful scenes from the life of Christ, so the
silence of monastic life was flooded instead with thoughts of Jesus
Christ. This painting of the Resurrection of Christ, and the Women at the Tomb
was painted during the artist's stay in the convent, 1436-46.
He Qi, Easter Morning
He Qi is one of the most popular modern painters of religious themes. Here a triumphant angel announces that Christ has risen, conquering the demons of darkness who now flee from him. The women have not yet woken properly, and seem unaware of what has happened. They still mourn, but the angel is telling them that the time for grief is over. Instead of the unfurled military-style banner often held by Christ in earlier paintings, He Qi's angel carries a luminous lily, sign of purity and peace.
Resurrection, St Paul de Meythet Church, Arcabas, Jean-Marie Pirot, 1998
Modern religious art at its best - stylish, dramatic, relevant. Note the large scale of the painting - compare it with the altar furniture in front. This is a painting that demands attention, and deserves it. The Risen Jesus is being mobbed by angels, but his calm figure dominates them and the altar space. Arcabas' message is clear: Christianity is about life, not death.
Christ Rising, Frederick Hart, bronze statue, 1998
Hart has captured a sense of weightlessness for the body of Jesus - it seems to float in space, transcending its own humanity. The body is reminiscent of Donatello's 'David' - there is the same slim vulnerability in the figure, the same sense of grace.
The position of the body, with arms outstretched, reminds the viewer of the Crucifixion, as if both events are inextricably connected, and one is simply a necessary extension of the other.
Peter Paul Rubens, (1) Christ Risen, (2) The Resurrection of Christ
Rubens contributed more than any other Flemish master to the formation of the Baroque style of the seventeenth century. His works are vivid, dramatic and frankly sensual, glorying in the beauty of the human form. They are colourful, generous, voluptuous, expansive - all the qualities of the best Baroque art and music.
In both the two canvases above, the figure of Christ dominates the space. There is nothing ethereal and other-worldly here, but a male human body in all its beauty. A god, in fact, and a triumphant one at that.
Rubens has obviously used the same model, which makes the contrast interesting. But he has also managed to capture the difference between a living and a dead body - the one charged with energy (as in the two paintings above) and the other so flaccid that the viewer can almost feel the cold damp flesh.
The vigor of the living body of Christ in the two paintings above is heightened by Rubens' masterly use of light and shadow. The dark areas in the paintings are uncannily empty, threatening, but Christ's body pulses with light. This clever contrast of light and dark were almost certainly inspired by Rubens' encounter in Italy with the works of Caravaggio. Rubens drew on what he had learnt there throughout the rest of his career.
Giovanni Bellini, The Resurrection, 1475
The central focus of worship in a medieval Catholic church was the altar. Here the priest consecrated the bread and wine so that it became the Body and Blood of Christ. Immediately after the bread had been consecrated, he lifted it high, so that all the members of the congregation could see it.
Now imagine the drama of this scene played against the backdrop of Bellini's 'Resurrection', an altarpiece standing immediately behind the altar. As the priest raised the Host towards heaven, his action was echoed by the figure of Christ, rising heavenward from his tomb. The parallel could not have been more obvious. The image echoed what was happening in the Mass.
This was reinforced by subtle parallels in the painting. The shape of the coffin of Jesus was similar to the altar's design; on the altar itself lay a white cloth not unlike the now-discarded shroud; and a dawn sky, with budding twigs on the trees, hinted at renewal in Nature. Even some cheeky rabbits, symbols of new life, gamboled at Jesus' feet.
Resurrection panel from the Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald, 1510
This image of the Resurrection is part of the Isenheim Altarpiece from the chapel of St Anthony's Monastery in Isenheim, Alsace. It formed a large backdrop behind the altar, with two sets of folding wings. The first view, with the folding panels closed, is of the Crucifixion. You can see detailed images of this harrowing masterpiece at Bible Archaeology: Crucifixion. The panel shows the twisted, bloody figure of Jesus on the cross, flanked on the left side by his mother Mary who is supported by the apostle John. Beside them, collapsed on the ground, is the pitiful figure of Mary Magdalene. On the right stands John the Baptist pointing to Jesus: this is the Messiah whom John foretold. At Jesus' tortured feet stands a lamb - symbol of the sacrificial Lamb of God who now hangs on the cross.
But when the wings of the altarpiece are opened, an altogether different sight greets the viewer, now dazzled by a blaze of golden light. Three panels have appeared, showing the Annunciation, the Concert of Angels, and the Resurrection. Unlike the outer ones, these inner panels are suffused with light. The drama of this light is especially obvious against the dark night sky in the background of the Resurrection scene. Grünewald's message? Christ brings light to the world.
Tellingly, the soldiers in Grünewald's painting are not asleep. They writhe away from the brilliance emanating from Jesus, as if it causes them physical pain. Their eyes are dazzled, and they themselves are overwhelmed. Their armour and elaborately quilted tunic offer no protection now. Above them, the serene and enigmatic Jesus hovers, weightless in his ethereal body. Only his punctured hands, extended towards the viewer, remind one of the torment he has so recently endured.
seated on the stone of the tomb, watercolour, 1886.
The gloriously ethereal angel is standing (floating?) in the antechamber of the tomb. This angel is clothed in classical draperies, and has a double set of quite realistic wings. Behind the angel is a large flat shape which must be the stone, now rolled away from the entrance. Inside the tomb itself two (four wing tips on the far left of the picture) other angels sit, waiting on Jesus. Tissot did paint a picture of the Resurrection but it is not one of his best, and is not included here.
'Resurrection', Veit Stoss, 1477 - 1489
This wooden carving is one of the panels of the extraordinary altarpiece in the Church of Our Lady, Cracow. The huge triptych (42' high by 36' wide) stands behind the main altar, and was carved by the German sculptor and wood carver, Veit Stoss. The entire carving is shown below.. The Resurrection scene is in to top right corner.
In the carving, Jesus seems to leap nimbly from the tomb. The alteration in his bodily state is suggested by the unopened coffin lid, through which his body has passed. The soldiers are dressed in 15th century armour and clothing, and they carry lethal crossbows and clubs. Twelve years in the making, the altar dominated the Church of Our Lady. The two side panels could be closed, and may only have been opened for the celebration of Holy Mass.
(Below) During the German occupation of Poland in the Second World War, the Veit Stoss Altar was removed to Germany. The photograph shows American soldiers carefully loading the Altar, for return to Poland in 1946, after the end of the war.
The Resurrection fresco, Pinacoteca Comunale, Sansepolcro, Piero della Francesca, 1463
The soldiers in this
painting are quite different to the ones Uccello presented (below) in
his stained glass window. They are strong men bored with the task they
must perform - very human, in fact.
Stained glass window in the Duomo, Florence by Paolo Uccello, 1443
Paolo Uccello was born in
Florence in 1397, lived and painted there most of his life, and died
there in 1475 - what you might call being in the right place at
the right time.
pulpit, with its three panels showing (left) Christ in Limbo, (center)
Christ was believed to have descended into Limbo after his death. Only then would the waiting souls be allowed into Heaven. At their forefront is John the Baptist, reaching out to Jesus.
This extraordinary piece of
church furniture was produced right at the end of Donatello's life - it
may well have been the last thing he did. There is some dispute, in
fact, about whether it was his, or merely the work of his apprentices,
but the centre section of the Resurrection is generally held to be his
Unknown illustrator of the 'Breviary (Book of Prayers) of Martin of Aragon, Spain, 1400's
The reign of Martin, king of Aragon was a peaceful period in Spanish history, and this allowed the king to devote his energies to consolidating his kingdom from within. He assembled an impressive library, and one of the items in it was an imposing breviary which he had copied around 1398 in the Cistercian monastery of Poblet.
The calendar's distinctive illustrations were modelled on the luxurious Books of Hours produced for the French court, notably de Berry's 'Petites Heures'.
Resurrection, Hans Memling, 1490
The critics pour mild scorn on Memling because he was, they say, a copier of other artists' styles, and produced nothing unique. This seems to miss the point. Memling's portraits of the human face were superb - sensitive and subtle. But his main achievement was to suggest a spiritual world similar to our own, but somehow Other.
The three panels in this painting show the Resurrection (central), the martyrdom of St Sebastian (left) and the Ascension (right). The Resurrection scene needs little explanation: the Risen Christ steps from the tomb while the soldiers sleep on, unaware of what has happened. The left panel shows St Sebastian stripped of his clothes and looking rather glum as he is shot through with arrows - he has been condemned to death by the emperor Diocletian because of his faith in Christ - a capital crime at the time. His execution was carried out by his fellow soldiers - no doubt as a warning to them not to copy his disloyalty to the Roman State. The right panel shows Mary, mother of Jesus and the disciples watching as the Risen Christ ascends into the sky, leaving them forever. As a small child I wondered if this meant the disciples could see up under Jesus' robes - a thought I instantly regretted, lest I be plunged into hellfire for such disrespect. Do admit, however: the dangling feet of Jesus in the top right corner of Memling's painting seem a little odd.
The Resurrection, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1635
Here in Rembrandt's painting Christ stands behind the angel, but he is no longer a recognisable human being. Instead pure light and energy radiate out of the darkness of the tomb, a theological statement rather than a physical one. In the face of this light, the human beings in the painting tumble into a confused group. Rembrandt, perhaps the most famous Dutch painter of the 17th century and one of the greatest in all Europe, was using the same technique that Caravaggio used with such success: a strong light highlighting the darkness around it.
The 1630's was a particularly prosperous time for Rembrandt. He married Saskia van Uylenburgh, the wealthy niece of an art dealer, and they had four children, only one of whom survived. His firstborn son was born and died in the year 'The Resurrection' was painted. The idea of Christ's conquest over Death may have seemed especially relevant to Rembrandt at this painful time, since he was deeply religious and a devoted family man.
This drawing captures the earthiness of earth. The dark opening of the tomb/sepulchre seems about to crumble away, and one can almost smell the dank odour coming out its gaping mouth. The angel, defying gravity, hovers above the teetering stone that has, despite its size, been rolled quite a distance from the opening. At first sight there seems no sign of Christ, but closer examination shows him hovering above the angel, weightless in his resurrected body. The women, newly arrived on the scene, look up towards the angel, while the soldiers wake from their sleep and gather their wits as best they can. The drawing is full of human activity - there is a certain confused busyness about the foreground scene that sums up what it means to be alive and human.
The Resurrection, El Greco, 1577
El Greco was the ideal
painter for fervently Catholic Spain - and indeed for the famously
enigmatic Spanish mind. His works are multi-layered, combining an almost
Byzantine mysticism, which he soaked in from his native Crete, and the
rich brooding colours of Venetian Mannerism. El Greco was able to
express the essence of all great Spanish art: subtle sensuality,
sophistication, and unique emotional intensity. His resurrected Christ seems
to emerge out of a stormy, threatening sky - though it must be admitted
that stormy skies are common in many of El Greco's works.
Angels Rolling away the Stone from the Sepulchre, William Blake, 1805
We are inside the tomb with Jesus as life returns to his body. Two angels guard him while a third steps forward to open the door of the tomb. The stone has been rolled away and the viewer sees past the angel into the chilly outside world. It is in darkness, waiting for Christ's light.
This is an unusual view. Artists almost always present the Risen Christ from outside the tomb, either looking into the tomb or watching Christ as he emerges. You can see the interior of a real 1st century tomb at Bible Archaeology: Tombs
'The Resurrection', Theodor Baier, 1920/1
Oh, dear. Jesus looking vaguely like Prince Albert or some other respectable Victorian gentleman just out of his bath. I can't see the Roman authorities in Jerusalem being overly concerned about this fellow. And a pink shroud?
The Risen Christ, Michel Ciry, Paris 1957
How far this is from the triumphant medieval paintings of the Resurrected Christ. What a dramatic contrast to the Christ-figures of Rembrandt or della Francesca. The difference perfectly illustrates the changed image of Christ that exists in today's world. The twentieth century has seen a de-mythologizing of Christian beliefs. Jesus' humanity has been emphasized at the expense of his divinity - indeed people often find it difficult to understand what is meant by the 'divinity' of Christ. The idea of the 'historical Christ' has taken a firm hold of the modern mind, at the expense of Jesus as God.
21st century people find it almost impossible to deal with mythic or symbolic thinking. Modern faith in science and rational thinking means that everything has to be 'provable fact'. If it is not, it is given no credence. Hence a 20th century Risen Christ who looks very like Dan, the nice man in the Deli.
in paintings of the
The Bible text - four Gospel accounts of the Resurrecton
Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28
Gospel of Mark, chapter 16
Gospel of Luke, chapter 23 & 24
Gospel of John, chapter 20
Bible Art: Paintings and Artworks from the New Testament - Bible Study Resource: Jesus and the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene, Easter morning
Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Fletcher