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 It’s a well-known image by Perugino and was originally in the church of San Francesco al Prato in Perugia (no longer active – the building suffered a lot over the centuries and only the shell remains).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.
In tomorrow’s sermon, I’ll be referring to three images that derive from the readings from Ezekiel 37 and John 11. I’ve chosen images that appear on The Visual Commentary on Scripture, which is a wonderful website for anyone interested in how art and faith interact. I won’t comment on them for now as I’ll post the sermon here after preaching it tomorrow but you can enjoy the commentary in VCS by Piers Baker-Bates.
The first is a depiction of the Valley of Dry Bones from Ezekiel and is a fresco from the 3rd century CE synagogue at Dura Europos in present-day Syria.
Next are two images of the raising of Lazarus, which has a rich iconographic tradition in the Christian East, where Lazarus Saturday occurs the day before Palm Sunday. The first is closer to that tradition, not least in the positioning of Lazarus and is by Duccio, from the early 14th century. Eamonn Duffy makes good use of images by Duccio in his excellent prayer book, The Heart in Pilgrimage.
The second is a Renaissance work by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating figures by Michelangelo.
I hope the sermon will make sense without having seen the pictures, but thought it would be good to offer them in advance! For now, I’ll let them speak for themselves.
Something a little different today. I’m a sucker for Dutch Golden Age landscapes and I rather like this one which is on display in the Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow. It’s by Jacob van Ruisdael and depicts the village of Egmond aan Zee, looking out over the North Sea:
There are two main reasons I like this painting. The first is that when my newborn son was in intensive care in the Yorkhill Children’s Hospital, just over the road from the gallery, I would find a few moments of peacefulness in front of this scene from time to time. The second reason, which explains why I find it peaceful, is that it reminds me of growing up in house in a village on the North East coast of Scotland which had a view of the same sea, albeit a bit further north. My bedroom looked out over the sea’s expanse and I always found peace in this view, which opened up an awareness of boundlessness.
Van Ruisdael gets the muted colours so well. There is sunshine in the picture, but it’s not glaring. The vegetation and the village’s buildings are also in muted tones and I find tranquility in their subtlety. I also find some kind of reassurance in the simple depiction of life going on unspectacularly, coolly, modestly. I look at the painting again (alas not in the flesh) at this moment in time and find the same kind of reassurance, the same kind of willingness to find light, which even in this clouded, indirect manner can offer hope in the everyday.
Raphael’s fresco of this scene from 1 Samuel 16, which is tomorrow’s first reading at Mass, is in the loggias of the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican and dates from around 1519. It’s actually on the ceiling along with three other scenes from the life of David and this may account for the slightly awkward perspective on the image above. Here it is in context, at the bottom of the square:
One or two things puzzle me about this picture. First is the ram off to the left awaiting sacrifice. Samuel is indeed about to offer a sacrifice in the text, but it is a heifer, not a ram. I wonder if this is a reference to David as shepherd. Another puzzle is the little pyramid on the table right in the centre of the composition. Is this a symbol of death and immortality? If so, does it point forward to Christ, the Davidic Messiah? And what of the box carried by one of the seven brothers – is this suggestive of the Ark of the Covenant? I’m also struck by the positioning of the horn of oil which bisects the window edge so that it joins the inside and outside worlds. The anointing is explicitly linked in the text to the descent of the Spirit, so this uniting of heavenly and earthly realms by the mediation of the Spirit is entirely appropriate.
There’s another inner-outer dimension of the scene, which is the contrast between human assessment based on outward appearance and the divine gaze, which looks inward, to the heart. The text is puzzling on this: is David an unlikely candidate because of his age? or his stature? He is, after all, described physically in approving terms; ‘he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.’ (1 Sam. 16:12 RSV). Raphael certainly depicts him as youthful (he was the youngest brother) but also strong and fine-featured. But he is also somewhat turned inwards as he receives the anointing – a gesture of humility perhaps, or of reflective interiority. After all, this shepherd and future warrior is also the poet of the Psalter and the musician who soothed Saul’s raging temper. Perhaps it is this that makes David the one favoured by the Lord – that he has, in his heart, a depth of prayer that is not yet apparent to the senses but is there for any who have the eyes to see.