During this Easter season, I’ve been reflecting on a number of artworks that depict Christ’s victory over death.
One striking painting by Bramantino (1490) features Christ raised from the dead but still bearing the emotional and physical trauma of the cross. Jesus is alive again but seems to carry the knowledge of the torture he underwent into the new creation. It is a powerful painting, as Jesus’ haggard face seems to remind us that his suffering was no illusion, and that the way of the cross will be no easier for us.
But the most consistently moving painting, the one that I return to again and again, is Piero della Francesca’s “The Resurrection” (ca. 1460).
Here again Christ carries the sorrow of the cross in his subtle and composed face, which is aimed directly at the viewer, turning the act of spectating into a confrontation. But there is also silent victory in his powerful stance. One hand holds a flag with a cross, while one foot is perched confidently on the sepulcher that recently held his body. The use of a sepulcher, rather than a cave tomb, is a nice homage to the town of Sansepolcro (=“holy sepulcher”) where the mural was painted. Like Christ’s body, the tomb is alabaster in color, as even death has been purified by Christ’s presence.
Like all adaptations of a biblical scene, the painter must act as a theologian. Decisions must be made in depicting the moment. And della Francesca, one understands, takes his task of visual exegesis seriously.
Not only does the moment balance gravity and joy in Jesus’ solemn triumph, but it invites us to understand that the work that has been accomplished is not yet understood by a slumbering world. The guards at the tomb, bear all the symbols of power and might: one guard’s blood red shield indicates Roman authority with its alluded SPQR (“The Senate and People of Rome”). Yet they foolishly sleep, utterly unaware that Rome’s power to bring death cannot defeat YHWH’s power to bring life. The same sleeping soldier with the shield sleepily holds on his spear, as if clutching the last shreds of domination. Jesus’ hand, meanwhile, grips a flag of triumph with the easy authority of the Messiah whose kingdom does not originate in this world (but does extend to it).
But God’s power is seen not just in Christ’s victory, but also in the image of new creation we see in the picture. Jesus’s wounds remain. A trickle of scarlet paints his side. Dots of red stipple his hands. But his body is restored to the full fleshly life we see in della Francesca’s “Baptism of Christ” (1450). This is a real body, with weight and heft.
Perhaps even more notable, however, is the landscape behind Jesus. A testament to the artist’s thoughtfulness, the trees and hills to the left of the Messiah are barren, but to the right new life has begun. Leaves and shrubs testify to the new work of creation inaugurated by Christ. In this way Piero della Francesca gets thunderingly right what so many Christians get so stunning wrong. Raised on the first day of the week – a day any faithful Jew would understand as the first day of creation – God in Christ has begun the re-creation of this world. This work of making all things new is not complete, but it has begun.
N. T. Wright’s address, “The Road to New Creation,” could almost be taken as commentary on della Francesca’s painting:
God is not going to abolish the universe of space, time and matter; he is going to renew it, to restore it, to fill it with new joy and purpose and delight, to take from it all that has corrupted it. ‘The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom, and rejoice with joy and singing; the desert shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.’ The last book of the Bible ends, not with the company of the saved being taken up into heaven, but with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, resulting in God’s new creation, new heavens and new earth, in which everything that has been true, lovely, and of good report will be vindicated, enhanced, set free from all pain and sorrow…God will make new heavens and new earth, and give us new bodies to live and work and take delight in his new creation. And the ‘good news’ of the Christian gospel is that this new world, this new creation, has already begun: it began when Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead on Easter morning, having faced and beaten the double enemy, sin and death, that has corrupted and defaced God’s lovely creation.
Wright has been making the rounds with this point for a decade now, and has helpfully reminded us of this key piece of biblical theology. Salvation is about restoring this world, not escaping from it. But it’s worth pointing out that paintings like “The Resurrection” have been reminding us of this for centuries.