Friday, May 27, 2011

Iconography of the Resurrection – The Commission of the Apostles

Central Panel From a Christian Sarcophagus
Roman, mid-4th Century
Vatican City, Musei Vaticani
The Gospel of Matthew jumps from the Resurrection directly to this scene, on a mountain in Galilee.

“The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.
When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.
Then Jesus approached and said to them, "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."  
(Matthew 28:16-20)

The so-called “longer ending” of Mark’s Gospel presents the commission for the future to the Apostles as having come during one of the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus “as the eleven were at table” (Mark 16:14):
He said to them, "Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.
(Mark 16:15-16)

Both texts instruct the Apostles to do two things: go out to convert the world and to baptize those who believe. Matthew adds the now familiar formula for baptism: “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.

In the early centuries of Christian iconography, this was known as the “traditio legis”. It is a scene well-known from early Christian times through the Middle Ages, but seems to have disappeared from the iconography of later times.*

Traditio legis translates as “the giving of the law”. In the case of Christianity it refers to the instruction of Jesus to the Apostles, which is the subject of the quotation from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark cited above.

The most famous early Christian appearance of the traditio legis is on the central panel of the upper row of scenes from the life of Christ on the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, now in the Vatican.

Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus
Roman, 359
Vatican City, St. Peter's Basilica, Treasury
The sarcophagus dates from the mid-fourth century (359), just a few decades from Constantine’s proclamation of the Edict of Milan, which made Christian practice legal. Prior to that time, Christian practice was illegal, sometimes tolerated, sometimes persecuted. With Constantine’s edict, subsequent adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Empire, and his building of the great basilicas in Rome and Jerusalem, we begin to see Christian art emerge from the shadow of the catacombs.
Central panel from Upper Level of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus
Roman, 359
Vatican City, St. Peter's Basilica, Treasury
The initial images clearly derive from Imperial imagery. The specific image is that of the Emperor as lawgiver. Christ appears seated on a stool with lion feet, raised on a small platform, just as the Emperor would have sat on a raised throne stool. On either side are Apostles, who receive a scroll of the law, just as members of the Emperor’s court would have appeared on a non-Christian imperial Roman monument. At Christ’s feet appears a Roman sky god (indicated by his billowing sail/dome, a representation of the sky). This little detail shows that bits of Roman iconography remained even after the adoption of Christianity. Christ appears as a young, beardless man, as was common during the early Christian period. The more mature, bearded Christ that is familiar to us developed much later.

One such Imperial image can be found in the silver Missorium of Theodosius I.  Created in 388 it shows the Emperor seated on his throne. with his two co-emperors and guards on either side.  Below him is the figure of Mother Earth, no longer a goddess figure, since Theodosius was a Christian, but now a symbolic one.  Like the sky god, figures like Mother Earth remained acceptable as symbolic representations of the elements in Christian iconography for many centuries.
Silver Plate (Missorium) of Theodosius I
Roman, 388
Madrid, Academia Real de la Historia

Quite a number of sarcophagi with representations of the traditio legis were made during the fourth and fifth centuries. While researching this article I was actually surprised by how many there are. In addition, it appeared in other forms of art as, for example, in the beautiful fourth-century mosaics found at Santa Pudenziana in Rome or in the St. Aquilino Chapel at San Lorenzo in Milan.

Apse Mosaic, Traditio Legis
Roman, Late 4th Century (with later reworkings)
Rome,  Church of Santa Pudenziana
Mosaic, Traditio Legis
Roman, Late 4th Century
Milan, Church of San Lorenzo, Sant' Aquilino Chapel

However, following the barbarian take over of the Western Roman Empire the use of the image tapers off. It persists, however, transformed into the familiar image of the Last Judgment seen from the facades of the great Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals to the wall of the Sistine Chapel.

Gislebertus, Tympanum
French, 1125-1136
Autun, Cathedral of San Lazare
In these images, Christ sits enthroned, surrounded by the court of heaven as He delivers judgment.

There are few images from later eras that can be identified as relating to these texts. One important one is part of the Maestà altarpiece of Duccio, painted between 1308 and 1311 for the Cathedral (Duomo) of Siena. What identifies this scene with the texts, especially with the text of Matthew, is the obvious mountaintop setting of the scene and the location of this panel on the Maestà itself.

Panel from the Maesta
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Jesus stands to one side and slightly elevated by the slab of rock on which He stands, already somewhat apart from the Apostles. They, the eleven, stand in three rows facing Him, listening to His words. Peter, shown with his traditional white hair, round face and beard, John, the beardless youth are readily identifiable in the first row.

This image is derived less from the image of the Emperor as lawgiver, than from another type of Imperial image, the Emperor addressing his troops.  Probably the most famous image of this type is that of the "Augustus Prima Porta".  This early first century image of the first emperor, Octavian, known as Augustus, shows the Emperor, dressed in splendid armor, his right hand raised and finger pointing the way to the enemy.  Excavated in 1863 from the ruins of the home of Augustus' widow, Livia, the statue is now in the Vatican Museums.

Augustus of Prima Porta
Roman, 15-20 AD,
Vatican City, Musei Vaticani

The standing posture and the references back to a theme of exhortation of troops gives more urgency to the scene, consistent with the opening words “Go, therefore, and make disciples”. This creates a more dynamic iconography than the “traditio legis”.   As the Emperor once sent forth his troops to conquer the world for Rome, the Risen Jesus sends forth His Apostles, the future bishops, to conquer the world for God. 

*  For more on this subject see April 25 - Feast of St. Mark -- Traditio Legis, revised in 2020.

© M. Duffy, 2011          

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Iconography of the Resurrection – Commission to Peter – The Good Shepherd Transfers Responsibility

GianLorenzo Bernini, Feed My Sheep
Bronze back panel from Cathedra Petri
Italian, c. 1657-1666
Vatican, Saint Peter's Basilica

“After Jesus had revealed himself to his disciples and eaten breakfast with them, he said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

He then said to Simon Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep."

John 21:15-17

Immediately following the mysterious breakfast on the shore of Galilee the Gospel of John presents us with this dialogue between the Risen Jesus and Peter. From the narrative it appears that the two are still in the presence of the other disciples named in the same chapter of John. What is this passage doing?

First, the three times repeated question “Do you love me?” and Peter’s three replies “ Lord, you know that I love you” are intended to erase Peter’s three denials in the early hours of Good Friday “I do not know the man”.

Then, the responses of Jesus: “Feed my lambs”, “Tend my sheep” and “Feed my sheep” represent a handing over to Peter of the role of Good Shepherd spelled out in John 10. Peter is now to be the shepherd of the sheep (John 10:2), the sheepgate (John 10:7) and the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). Like Matthew 16: 15-19 this passage seems to confirm Peter’s leadership of the Apostles and of the early church.

It is, therefore, surprising that very few works of art have focused on this scene, even among those commissioned by the Popes. Instead, most pictures, like the Sistine Chapel fresco by Perugino below) have focused on the text in Matthew:

“He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."
Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood 12 has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, 13 and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:15-19)

Pietro Perugino, Keys of the Kingdom
Italian, c. 1481-1482
Vatican, Sistine Chapel

Perhaps the lack of images of the shepherding commission may be due to the fact that the scene seems less dramatic and the images less powerful than that of the rock, the keys, the gates of hell and the binding and loosing. Yet, one could argue that the commission as Shepherd is at least as important and definitive, as that as the Rock and the Keeper of the Keys. It is the role of Guardian and Leader exercised by Peter and his successors.

In 1515 Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to prepare drawings for a series of tapestries to be displayed in the Sistine Chapel. The tapestries were commissioned to hang below the already existing frescoes in the Chapel, among them the Perugino above. They were planned to cover up the painted images of hanging draperies that form the lowest register of the Sistine Chapel walls.

Raphael, Tapestries in situ, 2010
Vatican, Sistine Chapel

Part of the process of tapestry design was for the artist to create a full-sized tinted drawing, known as a cartoon, to guide the Belgian weavers who would produce the tapestries. These full scale drawings are now in the British Royal Collection and have been on permanent loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London since 1865. They were recently (September 8 – October 17, 2010) shown, together with the tapestries woven from them, when the tapestries were loaned to the V and A by the Vatican Museums. This was the first time that the drawings had been seen together with the completed tapestries since they were woven in the years between 1516 and 15211. As with all tapestries weaving took place from behind, so that the cartoons and the finished tapestries are mirror images of each other. 

Raphael, "Feed My Sheep" Cartoon
Italian, 1515
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Raphael, "Feed My Sheep" Tapestry
Flemish, c. 1516-1521
Vatican, Pinacoteca

In the composition of the Commission to Peter the two principal figures are seen to the side of the composition, Christ standing and gesturing to both the sheep and the kneeling figure of Peter, who holds the keys, symbolic of the text from Matthew. The other ten Apostles fill the other side of the composition. In the forefront of the group one can clearly see Saint John with his traditionally beardless face and flowing hair. This emphasizes his role as eyewitness. The entire scene is set in a tranquil, lakeside landscape.

The tapestry displayed in situ in the Sistine Chapel

The work is so majestic that one might almost say it was definitive. Very few other interpretations of the scene have been done and none have the scale or breadth of Raphael’s.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Commission to Peter
Flemish, c. 1613-1615
London, Wallace Collection

In Rubens interpretation the background details have been eliminated and all the elements have been reduced. There are only two sheep and three additional Apostles (once again Saint John is prominent). The figures are shown as half lengths and there is no background. All attention is drawn to the brightly lit figure of the Risen Lord, to His gestures and to Peter’s loving response. In addition, the subjects of the care of the flock and the giving of the keys have been conflated into a single image. So, we are seeing a composite of the texts of Matthew (keys) and John (sheep).

Claude Vignon, Christ Instructs Saint Peter to Feed His Sheep
French, 1624
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Ten years after the Rubens was painted, the French painter Claude Vignon tackled the subject.  Vignon places the scene before a ledge or altar of some kind on which a book is placed.  On its open pages are Christ's words in the dialogue:  "Petre amas me" (Peter, do you love me?) on the left page and "Pasce oves meas" (Feed my sheep) on the right page.  Christ points to the book as He asks the questions.  The figure of Peter gives the answers with great intensity.  His outstretched left hand reaches across the body of Jesus, while his right is placed on his own chest to indicate the force of his sincerity.  There are no sheep in evidence nor any keys and only two other apostles, one of whom is only half in the picture.

In the mid seventeenth century Gianlorenzo Bernini produced two remarkable works on this subject for the one place on earth where they have particular meaning, not just as a record and reminder of a Biblical passage, but as a living command for Peter's successor, the Pope.  In 1646 Bernini carved the marble panel for the central doorway of Saint Peter's Basilica with the subject of the Pasce oves meas.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Pasce Oves Meas
Italian, 1646
Vatican, Saint Peter's Basilica

The relief has all the grandeur of Raphael's image, including the outdoor setting, the number of apostles shown, the gestures of Christ and Saint Peter and several sheep.

Ten years later Bernini repeated the subject for the back of one of the most important works he ever did, the amazing Chair of Peter, which forms the focal point of the entire basilica.2   In spite of this work being in a different medium (cast bronze instead of marble), Bernini manages to include most of the same details: trees, sheep, an additional apostle, but he throws in a few angels as well.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Back Panel of Chair of Peter
Italian, c. 1657-1666
Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica

In the late 1880s the French painter, James Tissot, began a huge number of watercolor paintings of the New Testament that are now in the Brooklyn Museum.  His interpretation focuses more on Peter’s responses than on the possible significance of the scene. There are no sheep in evidence, merely the other Apostles, who follow at a small distance, and the rocky shore. It is the gestures of Peter and Jesus that set the tone and evoke the words of John’s Gospel. The potential significance of the words and scene are not in evidence.

James Tissot, Feed My Sheep
French, c. 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

  1. For this event see:  They tapestries were also returned to the chapel for one week in February 2020 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael.  Unfortunately, the event was dramatically overshadowed by the developing coronavirus pandemic and access was severely limited.  Five hundred years after the death of Raphael, his tapestries return to the Sistine Chapel.
  2.  See also:

© M. Duffy, 2011, revised 2017, footnote 1. revised 2020 with updated information.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Peace, Slowly Dropping – An Historic Visit

Queen Elizabeth and President Mary McAleese leave the wreath laying
at the Garden of Remembrance, Dublin
Photo:  Time
As I have mentioned in previous postings, I am the child of Irish parents, parents born, not as citizens of a free Republic of Ireland, but as the subjects of British sovereigns. From an early age I have come to know and to love the country of my ancestors. And, with my own intense interest in the past, I have come to know and to understand the often painful history of that country.

In recent decades I have personally lived through a few of the episodes of recent Anglo-Irish history. I was in Ireland on August 9, 1971, the day on which internment was imposed on Northern Ireland and over three hundred individuals were taken into custody. I saw the reactions of my mother and her siblings, who had lived through the war for independence in the period 1919-1922. It was as if they were reliving an old nightmare. I was in London on July 17, 1974 when members of the IRA set off bombs in the Tower of London, killing one person and injuring 41 others. I heard and saw the ambulances racing through the streets and thanked God that my mother and I had chosen to take a tour of Hampton Court that day instead of the visit to the Tower that we had originally planned. I was in Ireland many times during the 1980s and 1990s when the news from over the border in Northern Ireland was of daily reprisal killings and the weight of sorrow from the North often threatened to drown the peaceful Republic in despair.

I have no romantic illusions about the often dreadful costs of this old conflict. And, like so many Irish people, I have English relatives. My “English” cousins are as thoroughly English as I am American and yet, we are the children of a brother and sister. The ties are tight and deep.

Oisin Kelly, Children of Lir
Dublin, Garden of Remembrance
So, it is with intense interest and not a little emotion that I have followed via RTE (the Irish TV network) the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the Republic of Ireland. I have watched in a kind of daze of wonder at a British sovereign laying a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin because that garden honors all those who fought the Crown in the rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867, 1916, 1919-1922. Many of them were executed or exiled by the Crown as a result.  The garden's signature sculpture, “The Children of Lir” by Oisin Kelly, is a visual metaphor for the transformation of Ireland from colony to independent state. (A detailed examination of the history of the monument may be found at

It was also moving to see the Queen and Prince Philip visiting the grounds of Croke Park, where 14 spectators at a Gaelic football match were killed by British troops on November 21, 1920 in reprisal for the assassinations of the so-called “Cairo Gang” of British agents earlier that same day, an event that forms the nucleus of Neil Jordan’s movie “Michael Collins”.

Memorial Gardens, Islandbridge, Co. Dublin
(Photo: Irish Heritage)

And it was good to see both the Queen and President McAleese lay symbolically crafted memorial wreaths at the beautiful gardens, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, at Islandbridge, Co. Dublin.

Photo:  Irish Times

The gardens were planned as a memorial to the Irish soldiers who gave their lives for Britain in World War I, the last war in which Ireland was still a colony of Britain.   The Queen’s wreath was composed of red poppies, a flower symbolic of both the First World War and the color associated with England. President McAleese’s wreath was of green laurels, symbolic of victory and service, and the color traditionally associated with Ireland.

But it was the speeches given by both women at the state dinner on the evening of May 18th that really caused the tears to well up. Both acknowledged the painful presence of the past that have shadowed the visit and given it its depth. Both noted the historic and the human ways in which both islands have intertwined. But both also looked forward to the future when a new relationship can be forged between these two sister islands.

Photo: RTE
The most touching aspect of their speeches is that both spoke of the heartbreak and loss from personal experience, a fact often forgotten. Mrs. McAleese, born in Northern Ireland, was forced out of her home during the “Troubles” of the 1970s. The Queen has suffered personal loss as well. Her cousin, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, who was also Prince Philip’s uncle, was assassinated by the Provisional IRA while on a visit to the Republic in August 1979.

Quotes from both speeches are:

President McAleese (full text here):

“This visit is a culmination of the success of the Peace Process. It is an acknowledgment that while we cannot change the past, we have chosen to change the future….

The two way flow of people between these islands goes back millennia. This very room is dedicated to St Patrick, whose name is synonymous with Ireland. Yet he is reputed to have been born in Britain. Patrick’s life as the man who brought Christianity to Ireland is illustrative of the considerable exchange of ideas and knowledge that there has been between our two nations throughout history....

It is only right that on this historic visit we should reflect on the difficult centuries which have brought us to this point. Inevitably where there are the colonisers and the colonised, the past is a repository of sources of bitter division. The harsh facts cannot be altered nor loss nor grief erased but with time and generosity, interpretations and perspectives can soften and open up space for new accommodations….

W.B. Yeats once wrote in another context that “peace comes dropping slow.”
The journey to peace has been cruelly slow and arduous but it has taken us to a place where hope thrives and the past no longer threatens to overwhelm our present and our future….”

Queen Elizabeth (full text here):

Madam President, speaking here in Dublin Castle it is impossible to ignore the weight of history, as it was yesterday when you and I laid wreaths at the Garden of Remembrance.

Indeed, so much of this visit reminds us of the complexity of our history, its many layers and traditions, but also the importance of forbearance and conciliation. Of being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it.

Of course, the relationship has not always been straightforward; nor has the record over the centuries been entirely benign. It is a sad and regrettable reality that through history our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss.

These events have touched us all, many of us personally, and are a painful legacy. We can never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy. With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all....

There are other stories written daily across these islands which do not find their voice in solemn pages of history books, or newspaper headlines, but which are at the heart of our shared narrative. Many British families have members who live in this country, as many Irish families have close relatives in the United Kingdom.

These families share the two islands; they have visited each other and have come home to each other over the years. They are the ordinary people who yearned for the peace and understanding we now have between our two nations and between the communities within those two nations; a living testament to how much in common we have.

These ties of family, friendship and affection are our most precious resource. They are the lifeblood of the partnership across these islands, a golden thread that runs through all our joint successes so far, and all we will go on to achieve.

They are a reminder that we have much to do together to build a future for all our grandchildren: the kind of future our grandparents could only dream of….”

May God grant that the hopes expressed by these two women, who have both suffered personal loss from the history of which they spoke, may come to fruition in the future. For, if these two islands, so deeply and sorrowfully intertwined these 800+ years, can overcome the conflict, the pain and the resentments of that past, surely there is hope for the conflicts of the present.

© M. Duffy, 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Iconography of the Resurrection – The Lake of Galilee – The Disciples Go Fishing

Jesus Appears in Galilee
from the Drogo Sacramentary
French (Metz), 9th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9428, fol. 64v

After this, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias.

He revealed himself in this way.
Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee's sons, and two others of his disciples.
Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing." They said to him, "We also will come with you."
So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to them, "Children, have you caught anything to eat?" They answered him, "No."
So he said to them, "Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something." So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish.
So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord."
When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea.
The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish.
When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread.
Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish you just caught."
So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.
Jesus said to them, "Come, have breakfast." And none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they realized it was the Lord.
Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish.
This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead.

John 21:1-14

Of all the apparitions of Jesus in the time between the Resurrection and the Ascension, this is both one of the most mysterious and one of the most real. It takes place in a familiar location, the Sea of Galilee, where so much of Jesus’ ministry had taken place, the area that was home for most of the disciples.

The scene opens with the disciples, returned from Jerusalem, following Peter’s lead “I am going fishing”. After an unproductive night, as they return to harbor, they see a figure on the shore, probably indistinct in the early morning light. He instructs them to cast their nets again and they make a huge catch. In the catch they recognize a situation they have experienced once before (Luke 5:4-11) and they realize that the figure on the shore is the same person that had been with them then. When they arrive on shore they find that He has prepared breakfast for them and He feeds them.

The setting on the shore of the great lake, the misty morning light, the catch, the recognition of the Risen One, the sharing of bread and fish, recalling both the miraculous feeding of the multitudes and the Last Supper combine to create the mysterious reality of this apparition. Ghosts may appear, but they don’t cook and share meals with their friends.

It is surprising, then, that these verses have not inspired more works of art. One of the aspects of this passage, which may have caused difficulties for artists and their advisors is how to distinguish this scene from other, very similar, scenes, i.e., the miraculous draught of fish associated with the calling of the apostles or the scene in which Peter leaves the boat and attempts to walk on water.  The differences between these scenes and that of the post-Resurrection encounter described by John are sometimes subtle.

Among the elements that hint at the post-Resurrection scene are:  Jesus stands on the shore, not on the water, the sea is calm and not stormy (although this is not always so), Peter jumps into the water when the boat is near the shore, there are often elements of the meal Jesus invites the apostles to somewhere in the picture.

Michiel van der Borch, Miraculous Draught of Fish
From Rhimebible by Jacob van Maerlant
Dutch (Utrecht), 1332
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 B 21, fol. 151r

Lluis Borrassa, Peter Reaches Christ on the Shore
Spanish (Catalan), 1411-13
Terrasa (Catalonia), Church of Sant Pere
The Risen Jesus Appears on the Sea of Galilee
From Chronicle of the Kings of England from William the Conqueror to Henry IV
English, c. 1430-1440
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 75 A 2-4, fol. 62v

The images above are still somewhat ambiguous, although they do show Jesus to be standing on the shore, as Peter walks through the shallow water and are, therefore, most probably illustrations of John 21.  However, the image immediately above is definitely an illustration of the passage.  Not only is the Risen Jesus standing on the shore as Peter comes through the water, but in the right background one can see Jesus and the Apostles gathered around a fire cooking.

Konrad Witz, Apparition of Christ in Galilee
Swiss, 1443
Geneva, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire
In the painting by Konrad Witz, originally in Geneva’s St. Peter’s Cathedral and now in the Geneva Museé d’Art et d’Histoire, we see the moment when Peter swims to shore, as the other disciples maneuver the boat and the catch behind him. In the background, we see the neat landscape imagined by Witz for the shores of Galilee, probably based on medieval Geneva itself. Originally in the cathedral, it was removed when Geneva officially adopted Calvinism in 1535.

Master of the Harley Froissart, Christ Appearing to the Apostles on the Sea of Galilee
from Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
Flemish, 1470-1479
London, British Library
MS Royal 15 D I, fol. 368
Attributed to Colijn de Coter, Christ Appearing to the Apostles on the Sea of Galilee
Flemish, c. 1500
Autun, Musée Rolin
In the sixteenth century many artists created works that more effectively distinguish this scene from the other, earlier events.

Anonymous, The Risen Christ Appearing to the Apostles on the Sea of Galilee
French or Flemish, 16th Century
Abbeville, Musée Boucher de Perthes
The anonymous French or Flemish artist who painted this picture handled the subtleties of the scene by including several successive scenes in one composition.  In the middle distance we see the Apostles out on the sea fishing.  At the left front they have arrived in port and are greeted by Jesus.  At the right Peter kneels to adore the Risen Jesus and in front of them is a grill with two fish cooking.

Herri met de Bles, Final Apparition of Christ to His Disciples
Flemish, c. 1530-1550
Buenos Aires, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
In this image by Herri met de Bles the Risen Jesus welcomes Peter to shore as the other Apostles struggle to bring the boat into port.  The figure of Jesus is definitely attired as the Risen Jesus.  He is nude to the waist and the wound on His side and right hand are obvious.  He also carries the Resurrection banner, by then a conventional part of Resurrection iconography.  In the background, just above the head of St. Peter we can see the group, gathered around a fire, at the entrance of a cave.
Joachim Beuckelaer, The Risen Christ Appears to the Apostles on the Sea of Galilee
Dutch, 1563
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
Joachim Beuckelaer made a career out of painting still lives and market and kitchen scenes, some of which have a Biblical scene positioned in the background.  He uses a similar arrangement here, showing us the busy trade of the fishing port in the foreground with boats being unloaded, fish sold, bargaining going on.  Meanwhile, in the background, Peter walks through the sea to meet Jesus, who waits onshore.  And, farther in the background, Jesus and the Apostles sit at a table while two fish are cooking on an open fire.

Maerten van Heemskerck, The Risen Christ Appears to the Apostles on the Sea of Galilee
Flemish, 1567
Barnard Castle (County Durham, UK), The Bowes Museum
Maerten van Heemskerck puts his knowledge of ancient buildings to use in this broad view of the event.  From what appears to be a high view of the region we can see not just the lake but the buildings and ruins that grace its shores.  And, from a distance, we can see Jesus waiting as Peter walks through the sea and the other Apostles continue working on the boat.  There is no fire here, but next to Jesus is the symbol of the fish, similar to those used by the early Christians as a covert sign of the faith.  Early Christian sites were being excavated for the first time in centuries at Rome during the sixteenth century and it is probable that Heemskerck could have become acquainted with them during the time he spent there.

Jacopo Tintoretto, Christ at the Sea of Galilee
Italian, c. 1575-1580
Washington, National Gallery of Art
At first, this beautiful painting by Tintoretto might seem to be somewhat ambiguous regarding just which incident is being depicted.  However, although no evidence of a meal in preparation is visible, the proximity of Peter to the shore and the fact that Jesus is standing on the shore and not on the water suggest that this if depicting the event in the Gospel of John.

Grabenberger Brothers (Michael Christoph, Johann Bernhard and Michael Georg), Christ Appearing at the Sea of Galilee
German, 1682-1683
Garsten (AU), Parish Church of the Assumption
This image, part of the decoration of the former Garsten Abbey church, includes all the elements of the story from John 21.  Jesus stands on the shore, summoning the Apostles.  Behind Him are fish and bread, ready for breakfast.  Peter strides through the water, while behind him the other Apostles struggle to bring in their full nets.

Sebastiano Ricci, Christ Appearing to the Apostles at the Sea of Galilee
Italian, c. 1695-1697
Detroit, Institute of Arts
There is no evidence for a meal in preparation in this painting by Sebastiano Ricci, but various other elements suggest that it illustrates John 21.  Jesus stands on the seashore with a radiance surrounding His head that suggests that this is a post-Resurrection event.  Also, the boat is not far from shore. Some on board struggle to bring in the catch, while others point excitedly to Jesus and Peter slogs through the shallow water.

In the late 1880s the French painter, James Tissot, began a huge number of watercolor paintings of the New Testament that are now in the Brooklyn Museum1. Among them are several that illustrate the passage from John 21.
James Tissot, Jesus Appears on the Shore of the Sea of Galilee
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
The first is very similar in composition to the painting by Witz and Tintoretto. Jesus, seen from behind, stands on the seashore, calling to the disciples who are on the lake. Behind him is a fire, planted amid stones. Again we see the shores of the lake. But, where Witz used his own imagination and the landscape of Switzerland to create his setting, Tissot had actually spent time in the Holy Land and gives us a vision of what the scene might really have looked like.
James Tissot, St. Peter Alerted by St. John to the Presence of the Lord Casts Himself into the Water
French, 1888-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
James Tissot, Meal of Our Lord and the Apostles
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

Tissot’s series also includes an illustration of the scenes that follow, Peter's jump into the water and the breakfast on the beach. The latter makes explicit the scenes that earlier painters had sent to the background.  Set in the same cove as the first illustration the disciples sit in a semi-circle in front of Jesus, their backs to the sea and their beached boats.  Jesus tends the fire and a roasting fish Himself. But, in keeping with the mystery of His Resurrection, we do not see His face in either picture.

© M. Duffy, 2011, amended 2017

  1. He also prepared another series of paintings between 1896-1902 of the Old Testament.  These are also in New York, at the Jewish Museum.  These two cycles probably make James Tissot the artist who has most thoroughly illustrated the Bible.  Most interesting is that Tissot spent considerable time in the Holy Land during the years in which he was working on these series.  At this time the area was still largely untouched by the changes of the modern world.  However, considerable archaeological activity had taken place to unearth at least some of the material culture of Biblical times.  For these reasons they are probably as close as can be imagined to illustrating the world of the Bible as it was.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Iconography of the Resurrection – Bursting From the Tomb

Cornelis Schut, Resurrection
Flemish, Before 1628
Cologne, Walraf-Richartz Museum

As the iconography of the Resurrection expanded, we have seen that each stage became more animated, less static, as it developed, progressing from the image of Christ climbing out of the tomb to that of His hovering in the space above it.  Toward the beginning of the fifteenth century the final level of energy emerged in both northern and southern Europe. In this final level Christ no longer climbs from the tomb or hovers above it, He literally bursts from the tomb in a blast of energy.

These images derive from the earlier “hovering” images. However, they are not serenely triumphant; in them the posture of Christ suggests a great deal of inherent energy.  In these images the figure of Jesus seems to spring out of the tomb and soar upward.  The impression of energy is reinforced by His posture as well as by the seeming movement of His draperies and banner, which seem to flutter in the wind generated by His rapid movement.

Unlike in the images of climbing and hovering His feet are not pictured as being flattened as for standing, but instead are pointed downward, increasing the effect of aerodynamics created by the fluttering garments and banner.  He is sometimes assisted by angels who move the lid of the sarcophagus or stone at the portal or who may be simple adorers.

The guards, clustered at the bottom of the picture, are no longer mainly asleep, although some are. However, more often they now cower in fear and awe, attempt to flee or shield their eyes from His glory.
Giovanni da Ponte, Resurrection
Italian, 15th Century
Minneapolis, Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Paolo Uccello, Resurrection
Italian, 1443-1445
Florence, Cathedral

Guillaume Hugueniot, Resurrection
from Hours of Pierre de Bosredont
French (Burgundy), c. 1470-1529
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 55, fol. 61r
Pietro di Francesco degli Orioli, Resurrection
Italian, c. 1475
Cambridge (UK), Fitzwilliam Museum

Hans Memling, Resurrection
Right wing of Crucifixion Triptych
German, 1480s
Budapest, Szepmuveszeti Muzeum

Jan Joest von Kalkar, Resurrection
Dutch, 1508
Kalkar Kreis Kleve, Catholic Parish Church of St.Nickolas

Perhaps the greatest, as it certainly is the best known, painting of this type from this early period is one of the second series of wings from the Isenheim altarpiece, painted in 1515 by Matthias Grünewald. Sometimes referred to as the “Cosmic Christ”, everything in this picture seems to be in motion; draperies fly, the guards reel backwards or fall on their faces. Although the figure of Christ is actually hovering somewhat statically; the amazing, glowing aureole that surrounds Him and into which His face seems to merge produces an effect of great energy. In addition, His gesture and facial expression, plus the flying draperies, create a sensation of intense movement and an energetic bursting forth. Set against the dark background, we are as struck with amazement as are the guards.

Matthias Grünewald, Resurrection
Wing from the Isenheim Altar
German, ca. 1515
Colmar, Musée d'Unterlinden
Benvenuto Tisi called Il Garofalo
Italian, 1520
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
A different, but no less energetic image, also derived from the hovering Christ, is found in the central panel of Titian’s Triptych of the Resurrection, painted at almost the same time as that of Grünewald and Il Garofalo (1520-1525) for the church of SS. Nazario and Celso in Brescia. Here the figure of Christ, although standing on a cloud, projects enormous energy. His position, poised on one leg, is an energetic one and He almost seems to be dancing in the air, as He waves the banner of victory over death, while His draperies fly out behind Him. In the background dawn breaks over a dark landscape, with a city seen in the distance. The astonished guards occupy the foreground. One guard has fallen to the ground, while the second gazes up at the Risen Lord.
Titian, Resurrection
Italian, 1520-1525
Brescia,  Church of Saints Nazario e Celso

Painters of the Mannerist period, the middle decades of the sixteenth century into the beginning of the seventeenth century, surrounded the Risen Christ with much activity, even though the central figure is actually very static.
Giovanni Capassini, Resurrection
Italian, 1555
Tournon, Lycée Gabriel Fauré
One could say that this image brings together Grünewald and Titian and adds the plummeting figure of defeated Death in the form of a skeleton plunging head downward to earth with his spear.  I am not able to make out the words in the plaque near the head of the skeleton, but they may be "Where, O Death, is your victory?  Where, O Death, is your sting?" from St. Paul (1 Corinthians 15:55)  

Bronzino, Resurrection
Italian, 1552
Florence, Church of Santissima Annunziata
Francesco Bassano, Resurrection
Italian, 1584-1588
Venice, Church of Santissimo Redentore

Antoine Caron, Resurrection
French, 1589
Beauvais, MUDO, Musée de l'Oise
Here Jesus almost appears to be executing the steps of a courtly dance in the air as He breaks forth from the tomb.

El Greco, Resurrection
Greco-Spanish, 1597-1500
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Il Passignano, Resurrection
Italian, 1600-25
Vatican, Musei Vaticani, Pinacoteca
Passignano's work includes several Biblical quotations.  Directly under the feet of Jesus it reads "Absorpta est 
mors in victoria", meaning "Death is swallowed up in victory" (1 Corinthians 15:54).  At the bottom of the painting
it reads "Notas mihi fecisti vias vitæ; adimplebis me lætitia cum vultu tuo"  or "You will show me the path to life, 
abounding joy in your presence" (Psalm 16:11).  

However, it is Paolo Veronese who pointed the way to the future Baroque style, as he so often did.  In a series of paintings of the Resurrection which he painted in the 1570s and 1580s Christ seems to truly burst forth from the tomb, no longer hovering serenely or standing on a cloud.  His posture, His upraised arms, His face raised to heaven convey the sense of actual flight.  Little wonder that the guards fall back in astonishment or try to hide their faces.  We have here entered a different realm of vision.
Paolo Veronese, Resurrection
Italian, 1570-1575
Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister

Paolo Veronese, Resurrection
Italian, 1570s
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Paolo Veronese, Resurrection
Italian, c. 1580-1590
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
The Baroque and Rococo artists who came after Veronese adopted his dynamic image and developed it further during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and on into the twentieth.

Annibale Carracci, Resurrection
Italian, c. 1600
Montpelier, Musée Fabre
Paulus Willemszoon van Vianen, Resurrection
Dutch, 1605
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Pieter Lastman, Resurrection
Dutch, 1612
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
Salvatore Rosa, Resurrection
Italian, c. after 1622
Chantilly, Musée Condé

Anthony van Dyck, Resurrection
Flemish, c. 1631-1632
Hartford (CT), Wadsworth Athenaeum
Bartholomeus Breenbergh, Resurrection
Dutch, c. 1635
Chicago, Art Institute
Alessandro Turchi, Resurrection
Italian, c. 1640-1649
Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Jan Boeckhorst, Resurrection
The Snyders Triptych Center
German, 1659
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Luca Giordano, Resurrection
Italian, After 1665
Salzburg, Residenzgalerie
Samuel van Hoogstreten, Resurrection
Dutch, 1665-1670
Chicago, Art Institute
Sebastiano Ricci, Resurrection
Italian, c. 1715-1716
Dulwich (UK), Dulwich Picture Gallery
Jean Francois de Troy, Resurrection
French, 1739
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Franz Xaver Wagenschoen, Resurrection
Austrian, c. 1750-1770
Vienna, Belvedere Museum

Laurent Pecheux, Resurrection
French, c. 1764
DôleMusée des Beaux-Arts
Nicola Guibal, Resurrection
French, 1764-1766
Stuttgart, Schloss Solitude, Chapel

Attributed to Januarius Zick, Resurrection
German, c. 1770
Glastonbury (UK), Glastonbury Abbey
Eugene Deveria, Resurrection
French, 1835
Pau, Musée des Beaux-Arts

James Tissot. Resurrection
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
Samuel Lawson Booth, Resurrection
British, c. 1880-1890
Southport (UK), Atkinson Art Gallery
Georges Rouault, Resurrection
French, 1934
Paris, Centre national d'art et de culture Georges-Pompidou
© M. Duffy, 2011, revised 2017