In him, who rose from the dead,
our hope of resurrection dawned.
The sadness of death gives way
to the bright promise of immortality.
— Preface for Christian Death I
Sacred images do not instantly spring from the pages of Scripture to gauzy forms on gilt-edged holy cards. Traditional Christian art, like Christian theology, developed slowly as the Church’s understanding of the Gospel deepened and the cultures around her shifted. For instance, today’s Catholics probably picture our newly Risen Savior as nude save for a fluttering wrap and carrying a banner blazoned with the cross. Such an image would have shocked ancient Christians. Although well aware that “If Christ has not been raised…faith is futile” (1 Cor 15: 17), they did not try to represent that rising. Artists experimented for centuries to find appropriate ways to depict the climax of Our Lord’s redemptive work.
The Gospels are silent about the exact moment when Jesus was restored to new life. Instead they give four unique accounts of holy women and apostles finding the tomb empty on Easter morning (Mt 28:1-10, Mk 16:1-8, Lk 24:1-12, Jn 20:1-18). Afterwards, the risen Christ appears to his followers with convincing proofs of his identity: his transformed body is still his own body, neither a delusion nor a ghost.
Early Christian artists did not presume to supplement Scripture. Perhaps they feared to invade God’s privacy, as it were. Rather than attempt direct illustration of Our Lord’s emergence from the tomb, they painted catacombs and sculpted tombs with scenes from the Book of Jonah. Jesus himself had used the Sign of Jonah as a veiled prophecy of his death and resurrection (Mt 12:40). As the prophet spent three days inside the whale, so would the Son of Man spend three days buried in the earth.
Another way to avoid the delicate moment when Jesus rose was to replace his figure with his cross-shaped standard that bears a Chi-Rho within a victory wreath. This is planted between the grave guards on Roman sarcophagus carvings of the fourth century. The same tactic was applied to early Crucifixion scenes: a sign takes the place of physical reality.
But Christ’s sepulcher itself became the preferred element in depictions of Easter. The oldest known example of this image was painted about 230 AD on the baptistery wall of a church in the Syrian town of Dura-Europos. Here the three “Myrrh-Bearing Women” bring spices to anoint Jesus (Mk 16:1). They approach a huge, plain sarcophagus, not the hollow rock chamber that the Gospels describe. The empty tomb was an appropriate—and popular—baptismal motif because receiving the sacrament is a spiritual dying and rising with Christ (Rom 6:3-4).
Coincidentally, a mural of Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones reanimating (Ez 37:1-14) adorned the synagogue in the same town. Christians had inherited the Jewish belief in a general resurrection of the dead at the end of time attested by Mary of Bethany before the raising of her brother Lazarus (Jn 11:24). As a creature of body and soul, mortal man will need both reunited to participate fully in the life of the world to come. Human resurrections, past and future, often complement the Resurrection of Jesus in Christian art.
A century after those murals appeared in Dura-Europos, the Emperor Constantine aligned himself with Christianity and built churches over sacred sites all over the empire. Among these was the Anastasis Rotunda in Jerusalem, begun in 337 AD. Its conical canopy sheltering the tomb of Christ influenced later depictions of the Easter tomb. For instance, it appears on a Roman ivory plaque made circa 420 AD as part of a small box. (Another side of the box has the earliest known Crucifixion scene.) Here one door of the elaborate open tomb depicts the Raising of Lazarus and a mourning woman. As in Mt 28:1, 4, two holy women and two stupefied soldiers flank the tomb.
More elements were added to Resurrection scenes: angels, extra guards, women prostrate before the Risen Lord. Subjects were combined to give a panorama of salvation that collapsed time and space. The Resurrection might be juxtaposed with the Crucifixion or Ascension or other biblical episodes.
Although the holy women at the empty tomb would long remain a popular image, by the end of the seventh century, the Church wanted to show Christ’s own victorious power in action. “Material figurations” were judged especially useful for forming faith in the Savior who was both True God and True Man. This new confidence in theology made visible also permitted artists to picture what preceded the Resurrection—death and entombment.
Thus arose a new visual formula called the Anastasis. Although the word means “Resurrection” in Greek, it does not depict the events of Easter morning. Instead it shows the saving work wrought by Christ’s soul while his body lay in the tomb: “trampling on death through death and presenting life to those who were in the graves,” in the words of a Byzantine Easter hymn. Unlike the Resurrection imagery described earlier, the Anastasis was not taken from the Gospels. Patristic speculation, sermons, Christological debates, an apocryphal text called “Christ’s Descent into Hell” from the Gospel of Nicodemus, and the final version of the Apostles’ Creed influenced its development.
Although the Anastasis first appeared in Constantinople around 700 AD, the earliest and most basic examples that survive are two frescoes at the Roman church of Santa Maria Antiqua painted in the early eighth century. They show Christ in an orb of glory crushing Hades, who symbolizes Sin, Death, and Satan, while pulling feeble old Adam out of its realm while Eve begs for the same grace. Here and in later works, the Savior always clasps the saved by the wrist, not the hand, to indicate that he alone can set the dead free. They cannot save themselves. Although expanded with many additional elements, the Anastasis remains to this day the standard Paschal image in Eastern Christendom.
Moving forward some thousand years, an 18th century Russian icon can serve as an example of a fully elaborated Anastasis painting. The setting is the underworld, beneath mountain peaks riven apart. Christ stands in the center within a blue aureole that flashes with light. He is fully clothed in a golden robe and stands on the two doors of Hades that have collapsed across each other, forming a cross. Turned towards his right, Christ reaches down to pull green-clad, bearded Adam out of his sarcophagus. Eve, all in red, kneels in her sarcophagus on the opposite side awaiting her turn. A throng of men fill the cavern behind her while John the Baptist, David, Solomon, and two prophets stand behind Adam. Two angels are beating the chained body of Satan who lies on ground littered with bits of hardware from the broken gates. In the lower corners, other people are rising from their graves.
Details may vary from icon to icon: positions, colors, the presence of more angels and demons, the addition of Abel and other Biblical characters, whether Christ carries a scroll, a cross-tipped staff, a scepter, or nothing. But the saving message remains the same. Only Christ the Sun of Justice can bring light into hellish darkness and free the imprisoned souls of the righteous dead. Even while his human body lay dead, his human soul remained united to his omnipotent Divinity.
As those frescoes at Santa Maria Antiqua demonstrate, early Christian art in the West was indebted to Byzantine models. But as the Dark Ages drew on, the Anastasis formula was simplified. Emphasis shifted away from the nature of Christ to focus on his saving power. The Anastasis morphed into what is called the Harrowing (Despoiling) of Hell. Here the Savior may look more aggressive, kicking down the door of the underworld or ramming his victory staff down the mouth of hell. He leads the newly freed souls out of a monster’s maw, a dark cavern, or the ruins of an ancient prison. The subject remained popular in medieval and Renaissance times. Nicholas of Verdun (enamel, 1181), Andrea Mantegna (painting, 1470), Albrecht Durer (woodcut, 1513), and many others produced notable works of art on the Harrowing of Hell. Protestant objections, however, have made this subject less common since the Reformation.
But as these medieval developments in Resurrection imagery were unfolding, a nameless Carolingian illuminator took an unprecedented step: he dared to show Jesus coming forth from his grave “like a bridegroom leaving his chamber” to illustrate Ps 19:5. This jittery little pen drawing in the Utrecht Psalter (830) started Western Christian art on a new path that led away from the Anastasis image for the Resurrection. A mere 10 years later, the golden altar of Sant’ Ambrogio in Milan has Jesus exploding out of his shattered tomb.
Although the motif of the three Marys at the tomb continued to appear, by the 13th century it was common to see the Risen Lord stepping out of his stone sarcophagus over the sleeping guards. The typical form of this image shows Jesus nude under a red cloak or white drapery, with the wounds left by the nails and the lance plainly visible. A staff, usually carrying a white banner marked with a red cross, is in his hand.
In 1366, Andrea da Firenze painted a composite view of Easter morning for a chapel in Santa Maria Novella at Florence that combined old and new trends. Christ, fully clothed in white and bearing his flag, floats on a cloud above his empty tomb while the same figure also greets Mary Magdalen at the lower right. Two angels perch on the sarcophagus, saluting the holy women to their left as the guards doze below.
A century later, Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection in the Cathedral of Borgo San Sepulcro (1458) concentrates the scene to stately effect. Although close enough to touch him, the sleeping soldiers do not notice the rose-swathed Christ who steps out above them. But the landscape responds by turning from bare to green—Nature knows her Lord.
Mantegna’s contemporary version of the same subject (1459-60) is more vivid and complex. Christ’s open sarcophagus stands in a grotto hewn out of red rock, astonished guards scattered before it. An aureole of red and white cherubs surrounds the emerging Savior who is wrapped in traditional white and raises his right hand in blessing. Green saplings sprout from cracks in the huge rock, for life will not be denied.
Using a common formula also achieves quite different results in two Renaissance depictions of the Noli me tangere, the risen Savior’s meeting with Mary Magdalen (Jn 20:14-17). Fra Angelico’s fresco for the Monastery of San Marco (1441-3) places the scene on flowery grass in a garden. Mary falls on her right knee before the rock tomb’s open door but Jesus waves her away. He is blond, fully clothed in white, and carries a hoe on his shoulder. The effect is sober and restrained, in keeping with Florentine taste.
But Titian’s version (1510-15) from Venice takes place outdoors in a hilly landscape outside a town. A muscular, nearly nude Jesus pulls his white cloak away from the kneeling Magdalen yet bends towards her with concern. He is inviting her to sublimate her yearning into a purely spiritual love, to pass from a barren spot to the lush green countryside that spreads out from where his feet stand. It may not be a coincidence that the mattock Jesus carries is a tool used to break up soil for sowing. He appears to Mary as both a real and a metaphysical gardener.
Meanwhile, some of Titian’s German contemporaries were pushing images of the Resurrection to new dramatic heights. Jörg Ratgeb painted Christ rising straight through the rock of his sealed tomb (1518-19). Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1511-15) imbues the Risen Lord with all the brilliance of the sun. Christ springs from his sarcophagus orbed in light so dazzling, it nearly obscures his face. Swathed in red and gold and trailing his shroud, he raises both hands in triumph with palms turned out emphasize his wounds. Three stupefied guards cringe from the sight.
This multi-panel work, created for the consolation of hospital patients, encompasses the whole pageant of Redemption. Its Resurrection would have had extra impact on its intended audience because it complements a Crucifixion of matchless horror. Grünewald’s altarpiece is the gruesome and glorious summation of Northern Gothic art. But that era was ending.
Rules for Catholic artists drawn up after the Council of Trent (1545-63) forbade scenes of Christ stepping from his tomb lest that denigrate the subtlety and agility of his Glorified Body. Levitating figures of Jesus had already been appearing, not only in the German examples just mentioned but in paintings by Hans Memling, Agnolo Bronzino, Titian, and others. Henceforth, it was the only approved form.
After surveying the long development of Resurrection art as faith made visible, it is crucial to remember that Jesus Christ did not rise for his own sake out of personal distaste for allowing his perfect body to undergo corruption. He rose for “us men and our salvation.” Not only does the Redeemer’s rising complete his work of Redemption, but his glorified body is a sign of his followers’ future glory. The 15th chapter of First Corinthians declares that what is corruptible will rise incorruptible. St. Paul teaches: “Just as we have born the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor 15:49). This destiny was foretold by the Old Testament prophets, for instance in Daniel’s vision of the righteous dead rising “to shine like the brightness of the firmament” (Dn 12: 2-3).
The raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:21-43), the widow’s son (Lk 7:11-15), and Lazarus (Jn 11:1-44) foreshadow Christ’s own Resurrection. These miracles, especially the latter, appear in Early Christian art from the time of the catacombs. The mysterious “saints who had fallen asleep” who rise after Easter morning (Mt 27:52-53) emerge from open classical tombs in a ninth century ivory carving made for Charlemagne’s grandson. A century later, they become Adam and Eve plus an anonymous couple in a manuscript from Fulda (975). A generation later, an ivory plaque from Metz (ca. 1005) has both Adam and Eve kneeling under the base of the cross as the shrouded, unnamed dead walk out of cemetery buildings on either side. Eve disappears from such scenes because legend placed only Adam’s grave beneath the spot where Jesus would be crucified.
Real and symbolic entities meet in a late 10th century ivory Crucifixion from Liege: the Hand of the Father, two angels, Sun and Moon, Mary and St. John, the Church and the Synagogue, Earth and Ocean. As Adam steps up from his sarcophagus facing the foot of the cross, his skeleton grows flesh. On either side of him, Land and Sea give up their dead. Those awakening saints of St. Matthew’s Gospel are becoming prototypes of all men destined to rise at the end of time. (The process will take a while to complete. They still appear—carefully labeled—in some 12th century German manuscripts.)
How the dead will rise was a matter of keen debate among Church Fathers and medieval theologians. The consensus formed that all people would be raised as their own unique selves, complete in every detail regardless of their bodies’ treatment after death. Even those reduced to dust shall awake at God’s command. Sinners will become everlasting horrors but the transfigured bodies of the righteous will be given the same properties enjoyed by Jesus: impassability (freedom from suffering), subtlety (spirit dominant over flesh), agility (instantaneous mobility), and clarity (radiant beauty).
Whether good or evil, all will rise to stand before the judgment seat of God. The earliest depiction of the Last Judgment is a mid-sixth century mosaic in Sant’ Apollinare Nouvo in Ravenna that strips the event to its essentials (Mt 25:31-46). Enthroned in an imperial purple robe, Christ welcomes the sheep and their robust red angel on his right while ignoring the goats and their effete blue angel on his left.
The scene is far more dynamic in an eighth century Anglo-Saxon ivory plaque. From his heavenly throne, Christ flings open scrolls inscribed “Come” and “Depart” as rising bodies wriggle out of their shrouds. An angel welcomes the saved at his lower right; a monster’s gaping jaws swallow the damned at his lower left. This motif, known in English as “Hellmouth,” will become a feature of the infernal regions for centuries to come, especially in illuminated manuscripts. The Byzantine East still employs Leviathan’s mouth in a similar way.
Medieval concern for the completeness of resurrected human body led artists to show angels supplying lost body parts and even birds, beasts, and fish regurgitating those they had consumed. But the chief torments of the damned in medieval art involve biting, butchering, cooking, gnawing, and devouring. Christ became holy food and drink for living men but the bodies of the evil dead will become meat for demons. Their hideous cuisine inverts the Supper of the Lamb. Heaven integrates; Hell disintegrates.
In stone, paint, or ink, panoramas of the Last Judgment appeared throughout the Middle Ages above the west doors of cathedrals, on the walls of churches and hospitals, in Bibles, prayer books, and devotional woodcuts. The dead rise intact, almost always naked but sometimes wearing headgear to distinguish class. They are weighed in the scales of St. Michael and dispatched to their eternal fates under the gaze of Christ in majesty and his heavenly court. In late medieval versions, he is seated on a rainbow wearing the crimson garment he rose in. The lily of mercy and the sword of justice float near him while on either side, his Virgin Mother and St. John the Baptist intercede for mankind.
Spectacular treatments of the Last Judgment, for example Jan van Eyck’s triptych (1420-25) or Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine chapel (1536-41), run the risk of drawing more attention toward the agony of damnation more than the ecstasy of salvation. Attention must also be paid to the joys of the blessed. Hans Memling’s version (ca. 1470) shows a procession of the righteous, nude and newly risen, climbing crystal stairs to clasp St. Peter’s hand and be clothed by angels. They enter Heaven through a magnificent Gothic gate while an angelic orchestra plays on balconies above them. Even lovelier in concept is the left wing of a triptych by Fra Angelico and workshop (1431) where magnificently garbed people, men and women, clerical and lay, embrace each other and their guardian angels. They dance in the flowery garden of Paradise around an overflowing spring.
This art historical pilgrimage ends as the saved are gathered to rejoice with their Savior forever. Yet however beautiful, images are only instruments meant to teach truth and inspire contemplation. The realities they struggle to represent are beyond the power of mortals to imagine.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!
Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.