Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Iconography of the Resurrection – Christ Appears to His Mother

Rogier van der Weyden, Christ Appearing to His Mother
Flemish, ca. 1445
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

All the Resurrection imagery we’ve looked at up to this point has its basis in the Biblical accounts of the Resurrection and the appearances of the Risen Jesus – to the women, to Mary Magdalene, at Emmaus and to the Apostles. However, there is one other subject, of which several interpretations exist, that has a non-Biblical derivation. This is the image of Christ Appearing to His Mother after the Resurrection.

To say that the image has a non-Biblical derivation is not to say that it in any way contradicts the Bible. Indeed, it does not. The Bible tells us, specifically, that there were many people to whom the Risen Jesus appeared. That one of these should be His mother is a logical conclusion. She was the means through which He entered the physical world (Luke 1:38); He performed his first miracle in response to her plea at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11); she was present at the Crucifixion (John 19:25-27). She had been a witness to the most important events in His life and mission. It is quite logical that she should be a witness to His resurrection, principal among those unnamed persons to whom the Bible says Christ appeared after His resurrection. Therefore, the idea of the Virgin Mary as a witness to the resurrection has a long history in Christianity.

It was already established by the time of St. Ambrose (340–397). In his treatise on virginity (Liber de Virginitate) he says “Vidit ergo Maria resurretionem Domini: et prima vidit, et credidit” (Therefore Mary saw the resurrection of the Lord: she saw it first and believed – translation mine). 1  Over time this idea developed from envisioning Mary as one of the women at the tomb to a separate, private apparition of the Risen Jesus to His mother. It was given its most definite form around 1300 by the writer known as the Pseudo-Bonaventure in the Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. The author said:
“And then about the same time, that is to say, early in the morning, Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobi and Salome, taking their leave first of Our Lady, took their way toward the grave with precious ointments. Dwelling still at home Our Lady made her prayer….”
(Snipping quote of the prayer in which she recounts the Passion and pleads for her Son to be returned to life)
“And with that, she so praying, sweet tears shedding, lo suddenly Our Lord Jesus came and appeared to her, and in all white clothes, with a glad and lovely cheer, greeting her in these words “Hail, Holy Mother.” And anon she turning said: “Art Thou Jesus, my blessed Son?” And therewith she kneeling down honored Him; and He also kneeling beside her said: “My dear Mother, I am. I have risen, and lo, I am with you.” And then both rising up kissed the other; and she with unspeakable joy clasped Him, sadly, resting all upon Him, and He gladly bare her up and sustained her.”2

Rabula Gospels,
Syrian, 6th century
Florence, Laurentian Library
In art history, the subject has not been a common one. There are some manuscript illustrations and frescoes between the sixth and the fifteenth centuries.  One of the first is the scene of the Resurrection from the Rabbula Gospels, produced in sixth-century Syria, where Mary is included among the women at the tomb.   We see her, her presence denoted by the large golden halo, being spoken to by an angel and at the feet of the Risen Christ.  The other woman with her may be Mary Magdalene.

Mary Receives News of the Resurrection and
Christ Appearing to His Mother
from the Passionale of Abbess Künigunde
Czech, 1313-1321
Prague, Nátional Library of the Čzech Republic
MS X.A.17, fol. 14V

A fourteenth-century work, the Passionale of Abbess Künigunde, presents a little drama, in two pictures.  In the upper picture the women who went to the tomb return to tell the disciples, including Mary, about the Resurrection.  In the lower picture Jesus is joyfully reunited with Mary, witnessed by the women and accompanied by angels.

A series of manuscripts in the fifteenth century that imagine a private apparition are illustrations of copies of the writings of the Pseudo-Bonaventure (see above) and of others, who included a private apparition in their own writings, such as the Pelerinage de Jesus-Christ by Guillaume de Digulleville and the Vita Jesu Christi by Ludolph of Saxony.

Master of the Harvard Hannibal, Christ Appearing to His Mother
from the Meditationes vitae Christi by Pseudo-Bonaventure
French (Paris), c. 1420-1422
London, British Library
MS Royal 20 B IV, fol. 141

Christ Appearing to His Mother
from Pelerinage de Jesus-Christ by Guillaume de Digulleville
French (Rennes), c. 1425-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 376, fol. 224v

Christ Appearing to His Mother
from a Book of Hours
French (Poitiers), c.1450-1475
Baltimore (MD), Walters Art Gallery
MS W 289, fol. 34r

Jean Colombe, Christ Appearing to His Mother
from the Vita Jesu Christi by Ludolphe de Saxe
French (Bourges), c. 1475-1500
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 179, fol. 158v

The best known example has been the subject of much art historical argument. This is an altarpiece in the form of a triptych (three separate painted panels that together form one whole), painted by Rogier van der Weyden, that exists in two identical versions.
Rogier van der Weyden, Miraflores Altarpiece
Flemish, ca. 1445
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The left panel depicts the Adoration of the Infant Jesus, the middle panel is the Pietà and the right panel is "Christ Appearing to His Mother".

One version is a complete three-panel painting that is now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. It was commissioned by King Juan II of Castile and left by him to the Carthusian monastery of Miraflores.

The other, commissioned by King Juan’s daughter, Isabella (who married Ferdinand of Aragon to form the famous pair of Ferdinand and Isabella) was originally placed in the Capilla Real in Grenada. It was broken up prior to 1632. Two of the panels stayed in situ in Grenada. The third, which happened to be the “Christ Appearing to His Mother” panel, was held in the collection of the Dukes of Osuña for many years, until the early 20th century. Between about 1900 and 1921 this panel was in several private collections until its last owner bequeathed it to the Metropolitan Museum.
Attributed to Juan de Flandes, Christ Appearing to His Mother
Flemish, c. 1496
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
One set was presumed to be a copy of the other, but for decades art historical opinion has been unable to agree on which is which. A detailed description of this panel, including a list of references can be found on the Met’s website (here).3

Currently, based on the study of the tree rings in the wooden panels on which the two are painted, it seems generally agreed that the Berlin triptych, known as the Miraflores Altarpiece after the monastery to which it was originally given, is the original, presumably coming from the hand of Rogier himself. The other triptych, known as the Granada-New York triptych, is now generally thought to be a later copy, executed by Juan de Flandes, who was a court painter to Ferdinand and Isabella. The history of the arguments is well summarized on the Metropolitan Museum’s website (here). As his name suggests, Juan de Flandes (John of Flanders) was himself from the Low Countries.

In the picture we see that, as described in the Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, Mary had been at prayer when Jesus appears. Her prayer book lies on the bench beside her. She has fallen to her knees and raised her hands in surprise or in prayer. Jesus stands beside her, wrapped in a red cloak, the wounds in His hands, feet and side clearly visible. The two figures are positioned within a Gothic frame like a doorway.  The figures are arranged in accord with the already well-established iconography for the Annunciation, with the kneeling Mary interrupted by the standing unexpected visitor.

Rogier van der Weyden
Panel of Christ Appearing to His Mother
Flemish, ca. 1445
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Behind them we can see into a larger open space, a vaulted room with columns and tiled floor. There are windows and an open door that looks out onto a tranquil garden landscape where Jesus can be seen climbing from the tomb in the presence of an angel and the sleeping guards. In the far distance, the three women can be seen approaching. This suggests that the appearance to the Virgin is happening simultaneously with the Resurrection event, thus making it the very first appearance of the Risen Jesus.

The foreground framework within which the two principal figures appear has the appearance of wood. Positioned on either side what appear to be small stone statues and carved scenes. The statues have canopies which also appear to be of stone. The two saints depicted are St. Paul, identified by the sword by which he was killed, and St. Mark the Evangelist, identified by the lion that has been his traditional symbol and by the book in which he is writing.   

Around the upper parts of the frame are the carved scenes, which come from both the New Testament and the traditions associated with Mary.

They move chronologically from top left to top right as follows:

Left side

• Top left is the seated Mary with three standing people. This may be the scene described by the Pseudo-Bonaventure which takes place just before the apparition of the Risen Christ to Mary in which the three women take leave of Mary as they prepare to go to the tomb.
• Middle left is the scene of the Ascension. Mary is among the group of disciples who watch as Jesus ascends into the cloud. The lower part of His body can still be seen, while the upper part has disappeared into the cloud.
• Bottom left is the scene of Pentecost. Mary is among the group of disciples on whom the dove of the
 Holy Spirit is seen to be descending.

Right side

• Bottom right is the scene in which the impending death of Mary is announced by an angel. Although it looks very like a scene of the Annunciation, it is distinguished from it by the fact that the angel presents Mary with a palm branch, a symbol of her approaching death.
• Middle right is the death of the Virgin. Mary, holding the palm branch and surrounded by the disciples, prepares to die.
• Top right is the coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven. Mary has been raised to heaven by angels and God the Father (on the right), joined by Jesus (God the Son), jointly place the crown of heaven on her head, while the Dove of the Holy Spirit hovers above her.

Each of the scenes has its own canopy, which also form a base for the scene above it. And, at the top of the framework, an angel hovers, holding a crown, symbol of Mary’s queenship. The historiated capitals of the
columns in the adjoining room illustrate Old Testament Biblical scenes that are prefigurations of the
Resurrection, but the resolution on the internet is not good enough for them to be seen clearly here.

The two versions are remarkably similar and it is small wonder that it has been so difficult to determine their precedence.

How remarkable this was for the copy can be seen by comparing the presumed copy, in New York, to a painting of the same subject by Juan de Flandes, dating to around 1496-1500 and now in Berlin. This is painted in his own style and is in a more contemporary setting, more open and classical. It seems to be set on the portico of a classical building. But many of the same elements are found in it. Again, Mary has been reading in a prayer book and Jesus again shows His wounds. Above the portico angels hover, while in the heavens we can see aureoles surrounding God the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Attributed to Juan de Flandes
Christ Appearing to His Mother
Flemish (active Spain), ca. 1496
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Juan de Flandes
Christ Appearing to His Mother
Flemish (active Spain), 1496-1500
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Rogier van der Weyden’s image became normative for pictures of this subject in the years after its creation, especially for Flemish and German artists, as can be seen from the numerous paintings derived from it.  

Jean Fouquet, Christ Appearing to His Mother
from the Hours of Simon de Varie
French (Tours), c. 1455
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 74 G 37a, fol.  84r
Follower of Rogier van der Weyden, Christ Appering to His Mother
Flemish, c. 1475
Washington, National Gallery of Art

Attributed to the Master of the St. Ursula Legend, Christ Appearing to His Mother
Flemish, late 1480s
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Follower of Rogier van der Weyden, Christ Appearing to His Mother
Flemish, Late 15th Century
London, National Gallery

Christ Appearing to His Mother
Single Leaf from a Gradual
Spanish (Castile), c. 1495-1515
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 887, fol. 2r
Veit Stoss, Christ Appearing to His Mother
Wing of Marian Altarpiece
German, 1498
Salzburg, Nonnberg Abbey

Albrecht Durer, Christ Appearing to His Mother
German, c. 1500
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Gerhard Remisch, Christ Appearing to His Mother
Stained Glass Window
German, c. 1500
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Albrecht Durer, Christ Appearing to His Mother
from the Small Passion
German, 1510
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Alabaster Carving, Christ Appearing to His Mother
French, c. 1525-1550
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Christ Appearing to His Mother
from Triptych of the Coronation of the Virgin
Flemish, c. 550-1600
La Fere, Musée Jeanne d'Aboville

One oddity among the late fifteenth-century images comes from an altarpiece with a series of paintings of the life of the Virgin from Aachen Cathedral.  In this image Mary is confronted by the Risen Jesus, but in this painting He is portrayed as the Man of Sorrows as well as the Risen One.  He stands in the pose of the Risen, but still wears the crown of thorns, while behind him stand the instruments of the Passion:  the Cross, the lance, the sponge on a pole, the nails protrude from the wood of the Cross and on them hang the whips used in the scourging.  The figure of Mary also has a symbolic reference to the Passion.  The sword, which at the Presentation in the Temple Simeon predicted would pierce her heart, is shown, poised to strike.   The meeting takes place not in her room but outside in the countryside beyond the city walls, presumably just outside the tomb, which appears at the bottom right.  In the background, people and animals go about their daily business.  It is a striking meditation on the connection between the Passion and the Resurrection.
Master of the Stories of Mary in Aachen, Christ Appearing to His Mother
German, c. 1485
Aachen, Domschatzkammer

During the late fifteenth and into the sixteenth century a different and more complex approach to the subject became common, which is the subject of another essay (here).

In the seventeenth century the subject once again seems to have had a revival in Italy and Spain. There is no attempt to describe the settings of the room in the kind of detail seen in the Rogierian paintings. And, in these paintings, Jesus often appears surrounded by celestial glory and sometimes accompanied by an angel or angels, instead of the simple, intimate presence seen in the earlier paintings.
Juan or Francisco de Solis, Christ Appearing to His Mother
Spanish, 17th Century
Segovia, Cathedral, Capilla de la Piedad
Guido Reni, Christ Appearing to His Mother
Italian, c. 1608
Cambridge (UK), The Fitzwilliam Museum
Giovanni Pietro Lasagna, Christ Appearing to His Mother
Italian, pre-1622
Location Unknown
Among them is a painting by Guercino. This version presents a slightly later moment in the description of Pseudo-Bonaventure, the moment when Mary embraces her Son. Here also, Jesus wears the white robes specified in the description, instead of the red robes of the northern paintings. He also carries the banner of victory, associated with the triumph of His resurrection. And, instead of the brightly lit northern versions, this painting exhibits the chiaroscuro that distinguishes the 17th century.
Guercino, The Risen Christ Appears to His Mother
Italian, c. 1628
Cento, Pinacoteca Civica
After the 17th century this touching subject seems to have no longer been requested from artists and died out.  Several reasons have been suggested for this:  the effect of the general tightening up of Catholic practice and imagery that was part of the Counter-Reformation, a shift to more secular subject matter on the part of artists, changing tastes on the part of patrons.
Francesco Solimena, Christ Appearing to His Mother
Italian, c, 1708
Cleveland, Museum of Art
There are a few final images that were produced during the eighteenth century and then the subject ceases to be used.

1.  Quoted in Breckenridge, James D., "Et Prima Vidit:  The Iconography of the Appearance of Christ to His Mother". Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, Number 1,  March 1957, p. 15.  Breckenridge is quoting from St. Ambrose, Liber de Virginitate, Vol I, Part iii, 14 found in Migne, Patrologia Latina, 16, col. 283.
2.  Breckenridge, p.17.  Breckenridge is quoting from Pseudo-Bonaventure, Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, Oxford, 1908, pp. 261-263.
3.  Additional analysis can be found in Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1966.

© M. Duffy, 2011, revised 2017