Scripture does not recount the Resurrection itself, so various strategies have developed for expressing it pictorially.
The earliest Christian images use symbols such as the one at right to express the intimate connection between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. In the picture, the chi-rho within the wreath represents the crucified Christ while the wreath and birds represent his victory over death. For further discussion and examples of this iconographic type, see my page on the Crucifixion.
THE DESCENT INTO HELL
Orthodox churches handle the Resurrection by showing Christ coming to Hell and rescuing the patriarchs and prophets. Images of this kind are called the Anastasis, which is simply Greek for "Resurrection." For further discussion and examples of this iconographic type, see my page on the Descent into Hell.
THE THREE WOMEN AT THE TOMB
This type goes back to at least the 6th century and is based on the synoptic Gospels' account of the women who first arrived at the tomb. The tomb had been "hewed out in a rock" and donated by Joseph of Arimathea, who had "rolled a stone to the door" (Mark 15:46). But when the women arrived the stone had been rolled away and they were told that Jesus had risen.
The names and number of the women vary from one gospel to the next, but most artists have chosen to follow Mark, who says there were three. As in Mark and Luke, they always carry spice jars to anoint the body (example). One historiated capital even adds a scene in which they buy the spices from a man in a shop.
In Matthew the good news is announced to them by a young man sitting outside on the stone, but in Mark the man is inside, "sitting on the right." In the Catena one commentator explains that "we need not wonder, for they afterwards saw sitting within…the same angel as sat without" (II, 336). In early images he sits outside a little round temple of classical design and greets just two women (example). The choice of a temple-like structure may be due to the word monumentum used for "tomb" in the Latin, or it may reflect the Aedicula that has enclosed the tomb since the 4th century. After the first millenium the angel usually sits on a sarcophagus inside the tomb, although often it is less than clear that we are observing an interior space (example).
The young man himself is almost invariably pictured as an angel with wings (example). In one striking example the wings are on his head, as in classical images of the god Mercury. Most images have him point to somewhere outside the frame in order to register his words to the women, "behold the place where they laid him" or possibly his command, "going quickly, tell ye his disciples that he is risen" (example).1
Surprisingly, few images do much to render Matthew's statement that the man's "countenance was as lightning, and his raiment as snow" despite the commentators' enthusiastic embrace of this detail. "That robe is not from mortal fleece," says St. Gregory, for example, "but of living virtue, blazing with heavenly light."2
In Matthew Jesus greets the women while they are running from the tomb to inform the disciples. They embrace his feet and adore him. This is pictured in a 6th-century manuscript and also, Fuchs argues, on the 4th-century Sarcophagus of Jonah, which is itself a grand meditation on the topic of Resurrection.
CHRIST EMERGING FROM THE SARCOPHAGUS
According to Mâle (194, n. 1) there are a few 12th-century examples of this next type of Resurrection image, but it became widespread only in the 13th and is probably the one most familiar to modern viewers. Despite scripture's silence on the matter, this iconography has Christ stepping forth from a sarcophagus in triumph. One hand will hold a long cross or a standard with a banner. Often the banner has a red cross on a white field. He raises his other hand in greeting or triumph, either palm-out or with the fingers in the blessing configuration. Sometimes the lid of the sarcophagus lies on the ground. Despite the clear impression left by the gospels that the sarcophagus was inside a tomb, many are like the picture at the top of this page in putting the event in an outdoor setting.
Many images show just Christ emergent, without the soldiers (example), or even without the sarcophagus (example). When the soldiers are included, they are always arranged around the sarcophagus. While the others sleep, one or more of them may be looking up in astonishment at the resurrected Christ or reacting with the attitude of "terror" mentioned in Matthew 28:4 (example).
THE APPEARANCE TO MARY MAGDALENE
In John's gospel, Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene. At first she thinks he is a gardener, but then she recognizes him and says Rabboni ("Master"). He replies, "Do not touch me, for I am not yet ascended to my Father." The images express the Rabboni by showing Mary kneeling, as in the picture below, or making a low bow, as in this relief. To represent the "Do not touch me," Jesus gestures with his right hand while Mary touches or nearly touches his garment, as here: The Latin for "Do not touch me," Noli me tangere, is conventionally used as the name for this iconographic type. The gospels tell of five apparitions by Christ on this day, but the Noli me tangere is by far the most likely to be portrayed in the art. The reason may be simply that it is the first of the five, but more likely Mary Magdalene is preferred because, as the Golden Legend puts it:
Mary represents all repentant sinners. Indeed, he willed to appear first to her for five reasons. The first, that she loved him more ardently; Luke 7:47: "Many sins are forgiven her because she loved much." The second, in order to show that he had died for sinners; Matt. 9:13: "I came not to call the just but sinners." The third, because harlots go ahead of the wise in the kingdom of heaven; Matt. 21:31: "The harlots will go into the kingdom of God before you." The fourth, that as a woman had been the messenger of death, so a woman should be the one to announce life: this according to the Gloss. The fifth, that where sin abounded, grace would superabound, as we read in Rom. 5:20 (Ryan, I, 220).A great many of the images emphasize that this first apparition took place in a garden, by filling in the background with flowers and/or trees, as in the picture above and the one below. Some even give Jesus a shovel and other gardening implements (example). This may be due to the suggestion of St. Gregory cited in the Catena Aurea:
Perhaps, however, the woman was right in believing Jesus to be the gardener. Was not He the spiritual Gardener, who by the power of His love had sown strong seeds of virtue in her breast? (IV, ii, 601-602, from Homilies, xxv)EMMAUS
In Luke 24 Jesus appears to two of his disciples as they are walking from Jerusalem to a nearby village called Emmaus. For a study of Emmaus images, please follow this link.
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-10.
MATTHEW 28:1-10 — And in the end of the sabbath, when it began to dawn towards the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalen and the other Mary, to see the sepulchre. 2And behold there was a great earthquake. For an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and coming, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. 3And his countenance was as lightning, and his raiment as snow. 4And for fear of him, the guards were struck with terror, and became as dead men. 5And the angel answering, said to the women: Fear not you; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here, for he is risen, as he said. Come, and see the place where the Lord was laid. 7And going quickly, tell ye his disciples that he is risen: and behold he will go before you into Galilee; there you shall see him. Lo, I have foretold it to you. 8And they went out quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy, running to tell his disciples. 9And behold Jesus met them, saying: All hail. But they came up and took hold of his feet, and adored him. 10Then Jesus said to them: Fear not. Go, tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, there they shall see me.