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.

This image was a popular one throughout the Middle Ages.  Its basic elements remained pretty steady for several hundred years.  Christ is shown emerging from the sarcophagus type tomb, while the guards cower around it.  He may be shown with one foot on the edge of the tomb, ready to lift Himself out or He may have already fully extended one leg outside the tomb.

Christ Climbing from the Tomb
from a Picture Bible
French (St. Omer, Abbey of St. Bertin), c. 1190-1200
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76F5, fol. 21v
Christ Climbing from the Tomb and the Women at the Tomb
from the Huntingfield Psalter
English (Oxford), 1210-1220
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M43, fol. 23r



























Christ Climbing from the Tomb
from a Psalter
German (Upper Rhine), c. 1250-1300
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 284, fol. 8r
Christ Climbing from the Tomb
from Livre d'images de Madame MarieFlemish (Hainaut), c. 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition francaise 16251, fol. 42



























Christ Climbing from the Tomb
Italian, c. 1286-1300_
Torri in Sabina, Santa Maria in Vescovio
Ugolino di Nerio, Christ Climbing from the Tomb
Italian, c. 1325-1328
London, National Gallery
Christ Climbing from the Tomb
from Vies de saints
French (Paris), c.1325-1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 185, fol. 3
Christ Climbing from the Tomb
from a Psalter
English (Salisbury), c. 1350-1375
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 765, fol. 18



























Christ Climbing from the Tomb
from Speculum humanae salvationis
Italian (Bologna), c. 1350-1400
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 593, fol. 26
Giovanni di Benedetto and Collaborators
Christ Climbing from the Tomb
from a Missal
Italian (Milan), c. 1385-1390
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 757, fol. 325


























This particular subject was a favorite interpretation of the Resurrection for the alabaster carvers of medieval Nottingham where there was a thriving sculpture industry which mass produced carvings for altarpieces used throughout Britain in the fifteenth century.  Many were also exported to continental Europe to countries as widely dispersed as France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Norway, Denmark and Iceland.  Production appears to have come to an abrupt halt in the 1550s with the English Reformation under King Henry VIII and his son, Edward VI.  The altars in England were broken up and pieces are widely dispersed.  Many of the continental altars survive.  Originally highly colored, some of the surviving pieces retain fragments of their original paint and gilding.1

Alabaster Carver, Christ Climbing from the Tomb
English, ca. 1390-1400
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Alabaster Carver, Christ Climbing from the Tomb
English, 15th Century
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art


























Alabaster Carver, Christ Climbing from the Tomb
English, 15th Century
Paris, Musee du Cluny, Musee national du Moyen Age
Alabaster Carver, Christ Climbing from the Tomb
English, ca. 1400-1420
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
























The subject remained a popular one for manuscript and panel painters throughout the Gothic period.

Fastolf Master, Christ Climbing from the Tomb
from Hours of William Porter
French (Rouen), 1415-1430
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M103, fol. 20r

School of the Talbot Master, Christ Climbing from the Tomb
from Sept Articles de la foy by Jean de Meun
French (Rouen), c. 1440
London, British Library
MS Royal 19 A XXII_fol. 16

























Meister Francke, Christ Climbing from the Tomb
German, 1424-1435
Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle
This most unusual back view appears to be unique in the treatment of this subject.  
Dieric Bouts the Elder, Christ Climbing from the Tomb
Dutch, 1450-1460
Pasadena, Norton Simon Museum of Art

Christ Climbing from the Tomb
German, c. 1450
Freiburg-im-Bresgau, Staedtische Museen,
Augustinermuseum_

























Christ Climbing from the Tomb
from a Book of Hours
French (Paris), 1485-1496
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H3, fol. 199r
In the hands of a painter with lesser skills , the effect can be
somewhat comical, as in this image, where the extended leg 
of Christ seems pasted on in an awkward position.
Hans Memling, Christ Climbing from the Tomb
from the Resurrection Triptych
German, c. 1490
Paris, Musee du Louvre

























This "type" was also used by artists of the Renaissance period, especially in the earlier part of the period, during the fifteenth century, known as the Quattrocento.

Piero della Francesca, Christ Climbing from the Tomb
Italian, 1463-1465
Sansepolcro, Pinacoteca Comunale
Domenico Pagliarolo, Christ Climbing from the Tomb
Single Leaf Cutting from an Antiphonary
Italian (Bologna), c. 1475-1500
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 444
Antonio Maria da Villfora, Christ Climbing from the Tomb
Italian (Padua), 1480-1519
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M1069, fol. 2
Ambrogio Bergognone
Italian, c.1490
Washington, National Gallery of Art

Michelangelo, The Resurrection
Italian, c. 1520-1525
 Windsor, Collection of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II
Michelangelo's drawing points the way forward for images of the Resurrection, adding considerable energy to what had become a highly static interpretation of the event.

This form of representing the subject appears to have gone out of favor with artists by the late sixteenth century, with one glorious exception.  This is the central panel of a triptych by Peter Paul Rubens.  Rubens combines the classic treatment of the subject with a new form of tomb, a cave-like opening, and with all the energy hinted at by Michelangelo.

Peter Paul Rubens, Resurrection (Central Panel)
Flemish,  c. 1611-1612
Antwerp, Cathedral of Our Lady

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.



  1. MacLagan, Eric. “An English Alabaster Altarpiece in the Victoria and Albert Museum.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 36, no. 203, 1920, pp. 53–65. See also: Hildburgh, W. L. “Seven Medieval English Alabaster Carvings in the Walters Art Gallery.” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, vol. 17, 1954, pp. 18–33.



© M. Duffy, 2011, revised 2017