Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Iconography of the Resurrection – The Women at the Tomb

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 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

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 and Resurrection scenes
from the Rabbula Gospels
Syrian, 5th Century

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 Mary Magdalen. In between is the empty tomb, represented as a small, temple-like classical building.

Three Women at the Tomb
from the Bamberg Apocalypse
Ottonian (Reichenau), 1000-1020
Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek
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, known as the Bamberg Apocalypse)

Three Women at the Tomb
from Getty Sacramentary
Ottonian (Mainz or Fulda), ca. 1025-1050
Los Angeles, Getty Museum

and from Fulda or Mainz. Both were painted during the first half of the eleventh century. Here two (LA) or three (Bamberg) women 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.

Fra Angelico, Resurrection
Italian, 1440-1442
Florence, Convent of San Marco

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

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

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

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.