Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Iconography of the Resurrection – The Women at the Tomb

The Three Women at the Tomb
from Livres d'Images de Madame Marie
Belgium (Hainaut), 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition française 16251, fol. 43v
To quote from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, iconography is “1: pictorial material relating to or illustrating a subject; 2: the traditional or conventional images or symbols associated with a subject and especially a religious or legendary subject; 3: the imagery or symbolism of a work of art, an artist, or a body of art”.

The iconography of any subject develops and changes over time. Christian iconography develops and changes too, as reflection on the Gospels and Tradition develops over time.

The iconography of the Resurrection was very slow to evolve. Unlike the Crucifixion which, because it deals with a fact of human life, the death of an individual, can be readily grasped by the human imagination and converted into images, the Resurrection is outside of human experience and, therefore, more difficult to imagine. What ought the Resurrection of Jesus to look like? How can it be graphically represented? Can it be represented at all? These are some of the questions that must have been in the minds of artists and their patrons from the time of the first Christian images.

Chi Rho from Early Christian Roman Sarcophagus
Roman, ca. 350 AD
Vatican City, Museo Pio-Christiano















For the most part, the early Church and its artists chose not to try to represent the Resurrection. It was alluded to symbolically, but not pictured, as for example by the wreathed Chi Ro, shown here on a sarcophagus from ca. 350 AD, now in the Vatican Museo Pio-Christiano, where the presence of the sleeping guards is a clear reference to the Resurrection.



The earliest images that directly reference the Resurrection are those that represent the Three Marys at the Tomb. This iconography visualizes the account, found in the three synoptic Gospels, of women (two in Matthew (Matthew 28:1-7), three in Mark (Mark 16:1-8) and Luke (Luke 14:1-11), who go to the tomb early on the morning after the Passover Sabbath to complete the anointing of Jesus’ body. There they find an empty tomb and an angel messenger (or messengers in Luke) who tells them that Jesus is not there, that He has risen.


Crucifixion, Women at the Tomb and Risen Christ Appearing to the Women
from the Rabbula GospelsSyria, c. 586
Florence, Biblioteca Mediceo Laurenziana
MS Cod. Plut. I, 56, fol.13r
These images first appear in the Rabbula Gospels, produced in Syria in the sixth century. Shown below the scene of the Crucifixion are two scenes from the Resurrection. On the left two women receive the message of the angel, while on the right the Risen Lord appears to them. In between is the empty tomb, represented as a small, temple-like classical building.

Similar images seem to begin appearing in western Europe around the year 1000 AD. Two beautiful examples come from the Ottonian imperial scriptoria at Reichenau and a third from Fulda or Mainz.

Women at the Tomb
from the Bamberg ApocalypseGerman (Reichenau), 1000-1020
Bamberg, Bamberg State Library, Msc.B 140, 42

The Three Women
from Book of Pericopes of Heinrich II
German (Reichenau), c. 1007-1012
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4452, fol. 116v
The Angel Seated on the Tomb
from Book of Pericopes of Heinrich II
German (Reichenau), c. 1007-1012
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4452, fol. 117



























Women at the Tomb
from a Sacramentary
German (Mainz or Fulda), ca. 1025-1050
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS Ludwig V 2, fol. 19v

All were painted during the first half of the eleventh century. Here two (LA) or three (Bamberg and Munich) women, holding pots of ointments and incense, are shown listening to the message of the angel, who is seated on the door slab. In the background is the tomb, shown as a small domed building. Inside the tomb, silhouetted against a gold background is the burial cloth. The tomb guards are shown as sleeping figures.

Similar images appeared in the sculpture of the Ottonian period.  Among these are ivory carvings and the famous bronze column commissioned by Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim at the beginning of the 11th Century.

Ivory Relief, The Women at the Tomb
German, c. 1000-1050
Dole, Musee des Beaux-Arts
Bronze Relief, The Women at the Tomb
from the Column of Bishop Bernward
German, 1015_Hildesheim, Church of St. Mary

This image has continued to be popular in Western art ever since. Some notable examples from the history of Western art are:

During the Middle Ages


The Three Women at the Tomb
from Psalter of Christina of Markyate
English (St. Alban's), 1124-1145
Hildesheim, Dombibliothek, Page 50

Ivory Relief, The Women at the Tomb
German, c. 1150-1170
Cologne, Schnuetgen Museum

























The Angel at the Tomb
German, c. 1240
Soest, Evangelical Parish Church of St. Mary on High
The Three Women at the Tomb
German, c. 1240
Soest, Evangelical Parish Church of St. Mary on High


























The Women at the Tomb
from Vies de la Vierge et du Christ
Italian (Naples), c. 1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 9561, fol. 184v
Jacopo di Cione and Workshop
The Women at the Tomb
Italian, 1370-1371
London, National Gallery


The Renaissance

Fra Angelico, The Women at the Tomb
Italian, 1440-1442
Florence, Museo di San Marco
Wood Carving, The Women at the Tomb
Flemish, c. 1460
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Imitator of Andrea Mantegna, The Women at the Tomb
Italian, c. 1460-1555
London, National Gallery

























Reliquary, Women at the Tomb
Flemish, 16th Century
Douai, Musee de la Chartreuse

Gerhard Remisch, The Women at the Tomb
German, c. 1540-1542
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries


Annibale Carraci, Three Women at the Tomb
Italian, 1590s
St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum

Benjamin West, The Women at the Tomb
American, 1805
New  York, Brooklyn Museum

The Nineteenth Century
William Adolphe Bougereau,
Three Women at the Tomb
French, 1860-1890
Private Collection

Oscar Gue_French, c. 1842_Rennes, Musee des Beaux-Arts
























However, it has been joined by a number of other images of what the Resurrection might look like, which we will explore in subsequent posts.

© M. Duffy, 2011