Resurrection in medieval art
Christ’s resurrection is a key event for Christians, while Easter is the most important celebration of the liturgical year. Interestingly, the image of Christ emerging from the grave only appeared in European art at the end of the 12th century. Earlier, the mystery of the Resurrection was hidden in other depictions, such as the Descent into the Abyss, Three Marys at the grave, or Noli me tangere. Sometimes, it also happened that all these themes appeared in a single work of art (an example of which is the Altar of the Basilica in Kraków by Veit Stoss), complementing each other and telling the whole story of the Resurrection.
|Veit Stoss, Resurrection, a panel from the Altar of St. Mary’s Basilica (1477-1489), St. Mary’s Basilica in Kraków, photo: Robert Breuer, corrections: Vindicator, Wikimedia Commons||Veit Stoss, Three Marys at the grave, a panel from the Altar of St. Mary’s Basilica (1477-1489), St. Mary’s Basilica in Kraków, photo: Hans A. Rosbach, Wikimedia Commons||Veit Stoss, Noli me tangere, a panel from the Altar of St. Mary’s Basilica (1477-1489), St. Mary’s Basilica in Kraków, photo: Hans A. Rosbach, Wikimedia Commons|
1. The beginnings of Resurrection iconography
|Crucifixion and Resurrection, a miniature from the Rabbula Gospels, 6th century, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, cod. Plut. I, 56, Wikimedia Commons|
One of the most important illuminated manuscripts of the first millennium are the so-called Rabbula Gospels, containing the Gospels in Syriac. The Bible in the Syriac translation is the so-called Peshitta, meaning “common translation”, which was probably created as early as in the 2nd century. In early Christian times, Syria was one of the key centres for the development of culture and art. In the 6th century, magnificent illuminated manuscripts were created in the monasteries there, whose authors were rooted in ancient artistic traditions. The Rabbula Gospels contain a colophon, in other words a note, from which we know that the codex was created in 586 at the monastery of St. John in Zagba, and Rabbula was the monk who rewrote it. Today, this manuscript is located in Florence, at the Laurentian Library. The book contains 7 full-page miniatures – although according to some researchers’ latest findings, these illustrations come from another manuscript (or several manuscripts) and were probably only added to the Rabbula Gospels in the 15th century. However, these miniatures are probably Syriac anyway and come from the 6th century – we should not date them precisely to the year 586 given in the text.
One of the most famous miniatures of this codex is the representation of the Crucifixion, under which the Resurrection was also found. In this case, it is simply an illustration of a story from the Gospel, probably according to St. Matthew: here, the two Marys are talking with an angel sitting on an empty grave, and on the other side the same two Marys meet the Resurrected Christ. However, in the middle of the stage, the artist placed a representation of the Resurrection hidden from the eyes of mortals: we only see the tilted door of the tomb, from behind which red rays emerge, knocking down the guards watching over the grave.
This early and completely unique depiction did not catch on in later Christian art.
2. Anastasis, or the Descent into the Abyss
In the early-Christian confession (the so-called Apostles’ Creed) a sentence appears which today is not entirely clear to many people: “[He] suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven.” This “descent into hell” is a somewhat forgotten episode with early-Christian roots, embedded in apocrypha (especially in the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus, containing an early, originally Greek, text entitled Acta Pilati) and in the texts of theologians, as well as linked to specific biblical references. For example, texts interpreted as an announcement of Christ’s Descent into the Abyss included fragments of Isaiah’s prophecy about the release of prisoners (Iz: 42.7, Iz: 45, 1-2; Iz: 49: 8-9), as well as psalms about the triumph of the king of glory (Ps 24) and the gratitude of those delivered from slavery (Ps 107).
The story about the Descent into the Abyss was based on the assumption that the souls of everyone who had died before the sacrifice of Christ as Redemption were sent to hell because of the burden of the original sin. Therefore, what Christ did first after completing his sacrifice was to descend into hell and free the souls of the just. With time, representations of Christ’s Descent into the Abyss disappeared in the art of the Latin West, but were preserved in Eastern art – Byzantine and Orthodox – assuming the role of the main depiction associated with Easter.
|Anastasis, a fresco from the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora in Constantinople, 14th century, photo: Till Niermann, Wikimedia Commons|
On Byzantine icons, frescos or mosaics, Christ was most often portrayed in a dynamic pose, as he pulls the ancestral parents – Adam and Eve – out of two sarcophagi in a swift motion. Under the feet of the Saviour, the broken wings of a door are often visible – this is the gate of hell, which Christ has forced open. In addition, crushed padlocks and locks may appear scattered on the ground, and even the devil lying in defeat, who tried to stop Christ by using all these security measures. Adam is usually dressed in a bright robe, referred to in some texts as a “robe of light,” while Eve usually wears a red robe. This colour may be a comparison of Eve to the Mother of God (often depicted in the royal red in icons); it may also constitute a representation of Eve as the mother of humanity, in relation to the association of red with life and blood. Meanwhile, in the Descents into the Abyss from Western Europe, the first parents are most often pulled by Christ directly from hell (often from the mouth of Leviathan) and are simply naked.
|Veit Stoss, Descent into the Abyss, a panel from the Altar of St. Mary’s Basilica (1477-1489), St. Mary’s Basilica in Kraków, photo: Hans A. Rosbach, Wikimedia Commons|
3. Three Marys at the grave
|Mikołaj Haberschrack, Three Marys at the grave of Niegowić, ca. 1470, National Museum in Kraków, photo: Digital Cultural Heritage|
The representation of women who discover an empty grave on the Sunday morning is the most traditional image of the Resurrection because it simply illustrates the (incidentally scarce) accounts of the evangelists. None of the four Gospels describes the very moment of the Resurrection – it is only mentioned that the women who came to anoint the body of Jesus on the Sunday morning found an empty tomb and talked to an angel. The individual descriptions of this event also differ in their editorial form among the evangelists. St. Matthew wrote that there were two women: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary; on the Sunday morning, at the grave, an angel appeared to them, who spoke of the Resurrection. Later, Jesus himself appeared to both the Marys and ordered them to bring this message to the Apostles (Mt 28: 1-10). St. Mark, meanwhile, claimed that there were three women who entered the grave early in the morning and found an angel there: Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of Jacob, and Salome. Subsequently, Mark mentioned the appearance of the Resurrected Christ, but only to Mary Magdalene alone (Mk. 16, 1-11). Luke, in turn, wrote that the three women were Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of Jacob, and Joanna and, in addition, in his version, there were as many as two angels at the grave. Luke did not mention the appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene (Luke 24: 1-11). Finally, the most comprehensive account was relayed by St. John the Evangelist (J: 20, 1-18): interestingly, in this version there is only Mary Magdalene, who was to arrive in the morning at the grave to anoint the body of Jesus. Finding the grave empty, she called Peter and another disciple (probably John), who came running and went inside. Only later, when looking into the grave, did Magdalene see two angels, after which she met Christ himself (we will return to this later). Ultimately, three women with jars of incense in their hands, standing over an open sarcophagus, on which one angel is sitting, were most often depicted in art. Traditionally, they were called the Three Marys, assuming that Salome’s name was in fact Mary Salome. In turn, Mary – the mother of Jacob was identified as Mary of Clopas, whom St. John the Evangelist mentioned as one of the women standing at the cross.
The three Marys were also important heroines of the oldest medieval Easter liturgical dramas. Drama of the Visit to the Sepulchre [Latin: Visitatio Sepulchri] was widespread throughout the entirety of Europe – in the basic version consisting of a dialogue between the women and an angel it was recorded in St. Gallen as early as at the end of the 9th century. Visitathio Sepulchri is also the oldest example of a liturgical drama preserved on Polish soil – its record survived, among others in the Pontifical of Płock, dated to the 12th century. This manuscript belonged to the chapter of the cathedral in Płock; in 1940, it was stolen by the occupational authorities and transported to Germany. It eventually ended up at the Bavarian State Library in Munich, from where it was returned to Poland in 2015. Currently, it is located at the Diocesan Museum in Płock.
One of the earliest representations of Christ emerging from the grave is a miniature from the Rhenish Psalter from the end of the 12th century (The New York Public Library, Spencer Collection Ms. 011): this image seems to constitute a transitional phase between the scene depicting the Three Marys at the grave and the Resurrection proper. Essentially, this is a traditional composition: an angel in an open grave speaks to the women who have arrived. There is only one detail – behind the angel, as if somewhat furtively, Christ slips out of the grave and heads in the direction opposite to the one from which Marys have come. Perhaps this is a visualization of the angel’s words regarding the fact that Christ has been resurrected, or perhaps the miniature shows events occurring simultaneously one after another (from left to right: first the Resurrection itself, then the meeting between the angel and the women). Either way, here, a new depiction in medieval art emerges: the image of Christ the victor, coming out of an open grave, with a banner of the Resurrection in his hand, most often placed on a pole topped with a cross. This attribute is rooted in literary texts related to the Descent into the Abyss, which described the triumph of Christ over death and over Satan from the perspective of a military victory.
| Resurrection and Three Marie at the grave, miniature from the Psalter of the Rhine, end of the 12th century, The New York Public Library, Spencer Collection Ms. 011, photo: |
The New York Public Library, Spencer Collection Ms. 011
Interestingly, at the end of the 14th century, there were also Resurrections showing Christ coming out of a grave which is not only closed, but also sealed! In this way, the artists demonstrated the special qualities of the glorious body of the Risen Lord, who then – as claimed by the Gospel – entered the Cenacle despite the door being closed (J:20, 19).
|Master of the Altar of Trzebona, Resurrection, after 1380, National Gallery (Národní galerie) in Prague, photo: Wikimedia Commons|
In modern art, the representations of the resurrected Christ became so common that on the territories of the Polish Commonwealth it even began to permeate into Orthodox art and replace representations of Anastasis rooted in Byzantine traditions. In the area of Podkarpacie, from the 15th century, icons of the Passion of the Lord – specific to this region – began to shape, in which there appeared both the Descent into the Abyss and the Resurrection that was fixed in the Western European tradition. The scene of the Resurrection began to replace Anastasis among the rows of festive icons in the iconostasis as early as in the 17th century. In the collection of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums, there are also works originating from Orthodox churches, including some depicting the Resurrection (see the tabernacle from the Orthodox church in Jastrzębik and the retable from the church in Izby). Christ emerging from the grave is dressed in a royal red cloak symbolizing his majesty – this element is also rooted in texts related to the Descent into the Abyss, in which Christ was described as the “king of glory.” As regards the representation adorning the tabernacle from Jastrzębik, above Christ’s head we additionally see the dove of the Holy Spirit.
5. Noli me tangere
St. John the Evangelist wrote that Mary Magdalene stood crying at the empty grave, when suddenly a man approached her, whom she at first took for a gardener. She asked him if he knew where the body of Jesus had been taken, and when he addressed her by name (“Mary!”) she knew that it was the Risen Christ. He then said to her, “Do not stop me, for I have not yet joined my Father” (J: 20, 11-18, translation from the Millennium Bible). In the Bible by Jakub Wujek [translated from the Latin Vulgate], this sentence reads: “Touch me not, for I have not yet joined my Father.” This “Touch me not” [in Latin: Noli me tangere] became the description of the scene in which the Risen Christ appears to Mary Magdalene. She falls to her knees before him – an attribute in the form of a small jar of incense is usually visible near her.
| Noli me tangere, initial from the manuscript of the Book of Hours, France (Lille?), ca. 1445, The Morgan Library & Museum, M.304 fol. 84, photo: |
The Morgan Library & Museum, M.304 fol. 84r
Interestingly, in these depictions, the Resurrected Christ sometimes has a broad-brimmed hat on his head and, in many cases, he holds some gardening tool in his hand: most often it is a shovel, although a rake or hoe may also be found. This is due to the brief mention by the Evangelist that at first Mary Magdalene took Christ for a gardener – and hence the presence of gardening equipment as the attribute of the Messiah who rose from the dead.
Elaborated by Magdalena Łanuszka, PhD
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland.
Magdalena Łanuszka, PhD – a graduate of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków with a PhD in the History of Art, a specialist in the Middle Ages. She has cooperated with various institutions: in the field of didactics (giving lectures at, among others, the Jagiellonian University, the Heritage Academy, numerous Universities of the Third Age), research work (including for the University of Glasgow, The Polish Academy of Learning), as well as in popularizing science (e.g. for the Polish National Archives, the National Institute of Museology and Protection of Collections, the National Library, Radio Kraków, and Tygodnik Powszechny). She is the coordinator of the project Art and Heritage in Central Europe at the International Cultural Centre in Kraków as well as the editor-in-chief of the local RIHA Journal. The author of a blog on looking for interesting facts related to art: www.posztukiwania.pl.