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