I often complain about the relative scarcity of images of the resurrection in our churches. We don’t seem to have any shortage of images of the crucifixion and many churches are surrounded by the Stations of the Cross. Neither do we lack images of the infant Christ with his Mother. But even in a church like Old St Paul’s, which is not short of religious images, you would struggle to find one of the resurrection. Every Orthodox church will have an icon of the Anastasis so why are Western churches so hesitant to depict what ought to be one of the central images of our faith?
I was delighted, therefore, when I watched Pope Francis’ most recent Regina Caeli address, to see an image of the risen Christ behind him in the library of the Apostolic Palace (the one he doesn’t live in!). It’s a well-known image by Perugino and was originally in the church of San Francesco al Prato in Perugia (no longer active – the building suffered a lot over the centuries and only the shell remains).
It dates from the very end of the 15th century and depicts a fairly typical scene in the Western tradition, with Christ rising above an opened sarcophagus surrounded by sleeping soldiers. He carries the banner of the resurrection and, in this version is flanked by angels. He is also surrounded by a mandorla, a device common in Eastern iconography to indicate a theological truth rather than a naturalistic depiction. I rather like the touch of having Christ and the angels standing on little clouds as if they would look silly just floating around! This is a spiritual image in the sense that it seeks to reveal the inner truth of the resurrection: this is new life as a risen and exalted reality, a life free from constraint and from the torpor of mundane existence. It is awakened life in contrast to the dulled and introspective life depicted in the soldiers.
All of this stands in stark contrast to a much better known painting from only a few decades earlier and only a few dozen kilometres away in Sansepolcro.
If Perugino’s painting is of a heavenly character, Piero della Francesca’s fresco is very much of the earth. No floating, no angels, no mandorla, this Christ has his feet firmly planted on the solid marble of the sarcophagus. The soft fluidity of Christ’s body in Perugino’s image is contrasted by the stately, muscular body of Piero’s Christ. In Piero, new life is shown in nature – green trees springing to life on the right of the scene, bare branches on the left. Christ’s penetrating, arresting gaze is contrasted by Perugino’s Christ whose eyes are cast down, reflective.
I don’t really have any kind of theological preference between these images and I think they complement each other rather well. Although substantially using the same iconographic format, they propose very different angles on the resurrection. Their different emphases underline the elusive and complex mystery of the risen Christ who brings an inner renewal as well as the call to a transformation of life in its earthly realities.