Friday, May 13, 2011

Iconography of the Resurrection – Climbing from the Tomb

Nicholas of Verdun, Resurrection panel
from the Klosterneuburg Altarpiece
Mosan, 1181
Klosterneuburg (Austria), Monastery Church
Some of you may be wondering, “Why has she said nothing about the scene of the actual Resurrection?” My answer is that Scripture really tells us nothing much about what happened until the moment when the women arrive at the tomb. We are told that there is an earthquake, that the stone is rolled away, that an angel or angels appear (Matthew 28:1-3, Mark 16: 1-7, Luke 24:1-7, John 20:1). But of what happens to the body of Jesus at the moment of resurrection, there is no description.

Consequently, artists had no Biblical text to guide them in their imagining of the moment. Without the specific guidance they were mostly free to consult their own imaginations and the images of other artists. We may distinguish the results in different “types”. Note that in this case I’m using the word “type” to mean something akin to “class” or “kind” of image.

First among the types is the image of the resurrected Christ climbing out of the tomb. It seems to have been established fairly early in the history of western art, since it appears in one of Nicolas of Verdun’s most famous masterpieces, the 1181 Klosterneuburg Altarpiece. The altarpiece is made up of multiple enameled images, arranged into three horizontal tiers, showing Biblical scenes from the periods Before the Law (Genesis), Under the Law (Old Testament) and Under Grace (New Testament).

In this scene Christ is shown, climbing from the tomb, with His arms upraised in prayer to the Father. Blood spurts from the wound in His side. In front of the tomb are the figures of three guards. Two of them are shown huddled in terror, while the third shields his face with his left hand. Around the scene is a border with an inscription. Under the scene the inscription reads: Agnus Paschalis (Pascal Lamb), while around the scene are the words: Vitam dat tento triduo Pater in monumento (Given life by the Father after three days in the tomb). (The translations are mine.) Words are separated by black enameled dots (not to be confused with the small screws that hold the plates in the armature of the altarpiece.

The iconography of this Resurrection type did not change much over time. Later examples come from:

Fifteenth-century Flanders
Dieric Bouts, Resurrection
Flemish, 1450-1460
Pasadena,  Norton Simon Museum,

Piero della Francesca, Resurrection
Italian, 1463-1465
Sansepulcro, Pinacoteca Comunale

Fifteenth-century Central Italy

Sixteenth-century Central Italy 
Michelangelo drawing, Resurrection
Italian, 1520-1525
Windsor, Royal Collection

Rubens, Resurrection
Flemish, 1511-1512
Antwerp, Vrouwekathedral
Seventeenth-century Flanders

Over time the level of energy represented in the scene increased. And this rising energy level points the way to the next two “types”.

More to come.