The Resurrection in ArtThe life here on earth of Jesus Christ has been probably the greatest source of inspiration for artists since that life began. Great works of art abound depicting his annunciation, his birth, his childhood, his presence as a Good Shepherd, parables of his teachings, his last supper, his crucifixion, his descent from the cross, his entombment, and his ascension into heaven. As we ponder the life of Christ in art, its interesting to consider that episode from Christ's life, which is notably missing from the list above. The one event upon which all Christianity is suspended is Christ's resurrection, yet strangely I can think of at best only one masterpiece-quality painting in which an artist made any attempt to depict this centrepiece event of Christianity.
That artist was Piero Della Francesco, the year was around 1450, and interestingly enough, the fresco masterpiece from the Early Renaissance is not in any church, but in the Town Hall of a small Italian village called Borgo San Sepolcro. The work depicts a triumphant, standing, semi-nude Christ resting his left elbow on an uplifted knee as his foot rests upon a low sarcophagus while in his right hand he holds a staff with a cross-emblazoned banner streaming stiffly over his shoulder. Arrayed before the tomb are what passes (in the Renaissance vernacular) for Roman guards sleeping, or just awakening to this glorious miracle. And though the work is impressive (largely because it stands so alone in depicting the event), it is probably most regarded by art historians not for its subject matter but for the artist's obsession with order and geometry. The composition boasts a stable, but all-to-obvious triangulation anchored at its base by the figures of the soldiers and rising to an apex squarely between Christ's eyes.
Having discussed the one notable exception, the point that arises from all of this is: Why? Why is it painters of religious works such as Grünewald, Leonardo, Rubens, Raphael, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, and others, who have contributed nativities, annunciations, crucifixions and all manner of other religious works of similar stature, have NOT been so inspired by Christ's resurrection? Crucifixions are a little more dramatic perhaps. Ascensions are probably more spectacular. But certainly a resurrection offers more impressive visual possibilities than a last supper, a prayer in Gethsemane, or Christ knocking at a locked door. Moreover, inasmuch as the church has been the biggest source in commissioning such art works, one also has to wonder that Della Francesca found himself painting in a town hall, rather than St. Peter's.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
12 April 1998