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Monday, June 13, 2011

Painting the Resurrection

The life here on earth of Jesus Christ has been the greatest source of inspiration for artist since that life began. Great works of art abound depicting his annunciation, his birth, his childhood, his presence as a Good Shepherd, parables of his teachings, his last supper, his crucifixion, his descent from the cross, his entombment, and his ascension into heaven. As we ponder the life of Christ in art, it's interesting to consider that episode from Christ's life which is notably missing from the list above. The one event upon which all Christianity is suspended is Christ's resurrection, yet strangely I can think of at best only one or two masterpiece quality paintings in which an artist made any attempt to depict this centerpiece event of Christianity.

The Resurrection, 1463, Piero Della Francesca
The most notable artist was Piero Della Francesco, the year was around 1450, and interestingly enough, the fresco masterpiece from the Early Renaissance is not in any church, but in the Town Hall of a small Italian village called Borgo San Sepolcro. The work depicts a triumphant, standing, semi-nude Christ resting his left arm on an uplifted knee as his foot rests upon a low sarcophagus while in his right hand he holds a staff with a cross-emblazoned banner streaming stiffly over his shoulder.  Arrayed before the tomb are what passes (in the Renaissance vernacular) for Roman guards sleeping, or just awakening to the glorious miracle. And, though the work is impressive (largely because it stands so alone in depicting the event), it is probably most regarded by art historians not for its subject matter but for the artist's obsession with order and geometry.  The composition boasts an all-to-obvious triangulation anchored at its base by the figures of the soldiers and rising to an apex squarely between Christ's eyes.   
The Resurrection, 1463,
Piero Della Francesca
(detail of self-portrait)
Having discussed the one notable exception, the point that arises from all of this is: Why?  Why is it artists such as Grunewald, Leonardo, Rubens, Raphael, Tintoretto, and others, who have contributed nativities, annunciations, crucifixions and all other manner of religious works of similar stature, have not been so inspired by Christ's resurrection? Crucifixions are a little more dramatic perhaps.  Ascensions are probably a bit more spectacular. But certainly a resurrection is more dramatic than a last supper, a prayer in Gethsemane, or Christ knocking at an unopened door. Moreover, inasmuch as the church has been the biggest source of such art works, one also has to wonder that Della Francesca found himself painting in a town hall, rather than St. Peter's.

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