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Lo, Jesus meets us, risen from the tomb

CHRISTIAN artists for the first 1000 years of the Church’s history showed great reluctance to probe the mystery of Christ’s rising from the grave.  They depicted either the women arriving at the tomb and finding it empty, or the Anastasis, a symbolic rendering of Christ’s triumph over evil and death.

By the 12th century, however, this had changed.  The idea of showing Christ’s bodily resurrection was more accepted, though the scene was less common in Italy.  The exception to this is the fresco by Piero della Francesca (1410/20-92). It can be seen in the town museum in Sansepolcro.

Although Christian believers today tend to find Piero’s depiction of the rising of Christ too literalistic, paradoxically the picture has great appeal to some agnostics. Aldous Huxley, for example, described it without qualification as “the best picture in the world”. For him, it expressed the humanist ideal.

Piero della Francesca absorbed the Florentine advances in perspective, together with its recovery of classical symmetry, and drew them together in a unified, refined and complete way.  The basis of his painting was a geometric, mathematical precision, combined with clear lines, and a great feeling for the cool, crystalline daylight of Tuscany — resulting in paintings characterised by an extraordinary, almost haunting clarity, dignity and order.

As the name of the town, then called Borgo Sansepolcro, recalls, legend related its foundation to the Holy Sepulchre in which Christ was buried. It might have had a stone that its citizens claimed to be from that site.

In this picture, the vertical dimension is emphasised by trees and the banner held by Christ. This is intersected by the horizontals: the streaks of cloud in the sky, the lid of the sarcophagus, and its base. But this is no boring symmetry, because the lance of the soldier, as well as the soldiers’ lolling heads and the robes of Christ, intersect the more rigid verticals and horizontals, to provide a different kind of balance and interest.

The light in this picture is particularly effective. It is the light of dawn in the sky, picking out the white body of Christ and the faces of the sleeping soldiers — an early, unearthly light. There may also be some obvious symbolism, because the tree to the left of Christ is bare, while the trees on the right are evergreen cypresses. These are set within the landscape that was familiar to Piero, near Borgo Sansepolcro.

Christ faces us, in majesty, with the traditional banner of the resurrection, indicating triumph over death.  Below him, the soldiers sleep, and one in particular, perhaps a self-portrait of Piero, could almost be dreaming the whole scene. The wound remains in Christ’s body, but the flesh is beautiful, and the body classical in proportion. This is why Aldous Huxley admires the painting. He wrote:

The being who rises before my eyes from the tomb is more like a Plutarchian hero than the Christ of conventional religion. The body is perfectly developed, like that of a Greek athlete; so formidably strong that the wound in his muscular flank seems somehow an irrelevance. The face is stern and pensive, the eyes cold. The whole figure is expressive of physical and intellectual power. It is the resurrection of the classical ideal, incredibly much grander and more beautiful than the classical reality, from the tomb where it had lain so many hundred years.

When my wife looked at this picture, however, it was a different aspect that drew her. The eyes of Christ are those of a man who has gone through crucifixion and death. Nevertheless, the experience of crucifixion and death in this risen Christ is not nearly as marked as in the one painted by a near contemporary, the Milanese artist Bartolomeo Suardi Bramantino (1465-1530), which is now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in Madrid.

The body of Bramantino’s Christ, still partially swathed in its white winding sheet, has a pale, unearthly pallor — except for the wounds, which Christ displays. The eyes, bloodshot with tears, stare directly at the viewer. This Christ still bears the marks of death.

By contrast, as Huxley observed, Piero’s Christ looks set to live a fully human life on the human stage: in fine shape in every sense. The contrast of Bramantino and Piero brings out the impossibility of depicting the mysterious truth that the Church has proclaimed at this point: a Christ who has both died and overcome death for all people for all time.


Christ in majesty (above):  Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection , which was painted in 1463, and can be seen in the Pinacoteca Comunale in Sansepolcro, Italy. Aldous Huxley called it “the best picture in the world”. Photo Scala

Questions for reflection

Was the Western Church right to try to depict the rising of Christ from the tomb in this kind of way?
 Is there a particular work of art or an art form that might best convey the proclamation that Christ is risen today?

This is an edited extract from The Passion in Art by Richard Harries (Ashgate; 0-7546-5011-1).

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