Sacred Objects

Cross and Crucifix in the Christian Assembly - Part VI (The Resurrection in Christian Art)

November 27, 2007

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This series on the cross and crucifix began with the requirement of the new General Instruction on the Roman Missal that the cross in the liturgical assembly should have an image of the crucified Lord. By implication, the guideline excludes images of the risen Lord.
Ivory PanelMany churches have images of the risen Lord, either on the reredos wall of the sanctuary or mounted on the processional cross. Only one crucifix is required; indeed, only one should be visible during the celebration. As I read the instruction, churches might have, for example, a crucifix on the wall and crux gemmata for the processional cross; or, an image of the risen Christ on the reredos and a crucifix carried in procession.

Given the current popularity of images of the risen Lord, it seemed fitting to close this series with an overview of the history of resurrection images. In many ways the evolution of resurrection images parallels that of the crucifixion images and for similar reasons. Early Christian artists were expected to create images faithful to scripture and there were no witnesses to the resurrection itself. The gospels tell the story of the women going to the tomb and finding it empty. The “Women at the Tomb” was the standard resurrection image in the early church.

Crucifixion from Rabula Gospels

Frequently, the crucifixion and the empty tomb were shown together in a single composition as we see in a page from the Rabula Gospels. Likewise, the image of the empty tomb was often portrayed together with Mary of Magdala’s encounter with Jesus in the Garden.



Deesis from St. Catherine

There was no problem picturing the appearances of the risen Lord, or picturing Christ in glory, because they are in scripture. Indeed, the most common image during Christianity’s first millennium was the Deësis, Christ enthroned with Mary and John on either side, pleading on behalf of humanity. The iconography, in a way, mirrors that of the crucifixion.


Meister Francke Altarpiece

I believe the reticence of the early Christians in showing Christ rising from the tomb, like their reticence in depicting the death of Christ on the cross, follows from a respect for the mystery of the resurrection. The gospels make it abundantly clear that the resurrection of Jesus was not simply the resuscitation of a corpse, as was the raising of Lazarus, but a transformation. Indeed, in patristic writing and preaching, the resurrection is often described as an explosion of light that blew the tomb apart. This element of mystery is usually lacking in images of Christ rising from the tomb, which began to appear in the middle ages and to be popular in the Renaissance. This is particularly evident in a scene from a late medieval altarpiece in which Jesus appears awkwardly climbing out of the tomb.

Grunewald resurrectionIn fairness, many artists did manage to honor the element of mystery. One example is a resurrection scene by Grünewald (1470-1528). The scene is totally dark; all the light emanates from the body of Jesus.







Fresco of the AnastasisAround the same time the Christus mortuus iconography appeared in the Orthodox world, a new, dynamic image appeared: the Anastasis (Greek for resurrection). It is not a depiction of Christ’s rising but, rather, of his descent among the dead, which is mentioned only in I Peter 3, 18-22, where it is tied with baptism. Christ is shown in dynamic movement, reaching out to Adam and Eve and the other faithful souls detained in hell. The image recapitulates a favorite theme of the patristic writers, and indeed of the liturgy itself; namely, that every aspect of Christ’s life transforms and redeems every aspect of ours.

Fra Angelico's Harrowing of HellThis image came to the West, where it was called the “harrowing of hell,” but it never achieved the popularity it enjoyed in the East, where it is the festal icon for Easter. Perhaps the reason is that the celebration of the Easter vigil and the baptism of adults had ceased to be popular in the West. Likewise, some of the dynamism is lacking.

The trouble with most of the images of the risen Christ I have seen in churches is that they fail to convey the triumphant glory of the resurrection. This is particularly true of the images widely available in church goods catalogs. People frequently complain that contemporary churches are sterile and lack a sense of the sacred. Apart from imaginative architecture, one way of banishing blandness is to explore the judicious use of iconography to enhance the celebration of liturgy. The Church has created a rich repository of images over the centuries, particularly during the earlier centuries. It is my sincere hope that these articles will inspire greater awareness, both theological and visual, on the part of those considering the commissioning of images for the liturgical assembly.

Ronald John Zawilla, Ph.D. is a liturgical design consultant in Chicago, Illinois.


Cross and Crucifix in the Christian Assembly

    Part I: The Early Christian Period - Crux Invicta, Crux Gemmata
    Part II: The Early Christian Period - Christus Victor
    Part III: The Medieval Period - Christus Mortuus
    Part IV: The Medieval Period - Painted Crosses and Altarpieces
    Part V: The Renaissance and Baroque Periods: Drama and Emotion

The Labyrinth and the Paschal Mystery

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