The Death and Resurrection of Christ

12th or 13th century
Stained glass window
Canterbury Cathedral

The five central panels illustrate key episodes in the gospel accounts, and each is accompanied with smaller panels illustrating Old Testament events believed to foreshadow that episode.

The Crucifixion

The movement begins with the Crucifixion panel at the bottom. As in works after the 11th century, Jesus is shown as in death, with his head fallen to his shoulder and the weight of the body pulling on the arms. What is not usual is that the cross is flanked by four generic onlookers rather than by specific disciples.

The half-roundel below the panel illustrates Numbers 13:23, in which two of the spies whom Moses sent into Canaan return with a cluster of grapes so large that they need to carry it on a pole. In the traditional interpretation of this verse the two spies represent the Gentiles and Jews, and the grapes refer to Jesus, whom they hung on the cross.1

In Exodus 24:5-6 Moses tells some youths to sacrifice young bulls as "peace offerings" and to put the blood into bowls. He then splashes some of their blood on the altar. This appears to be the subject of the half-roundel on the right. In the lower right of the image two beardless youths cut the throat of a young lamb and let its blood flow into a bowl. The reason for picturing a lamb instead of a bull is that Jesus is characterized as the "lamb of God" who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29, Revelation 5:6). Then, in the upper left, Moses approaches the temple with one of the bowls. Hebrews 7:27 contrasts this and the other expiatory rituals performed repeatedly under the Old Law with the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross that has expiated man's sins once and for all.

The images in the other half-roundels are more common and recognizable On the left Moses strikes the rock and water gushes from it (Exodus 17:1-7). In I Corinthians 10:4 St. Paul says "the rock was Christ." For the commentators this is because Christ was "struck" on the cross (with the soldier's lance), causing blood and water to flow for the salvation of mankind (Glossa Ordinaria I, 943-44).

Above the crucifixion we see Abraham's interrupted sacrifice of Isaac with all the usual elements: the lamb, the angel, Isaac on the altar, and Abraham with his sword raised. This has been taken as a forerunner of the sacrifice of Christ almost since the beginning of the Christian era. (See our discussion of the sacrifice and its typology on the Abraham page.)

The Entombment

This is a traditional image of the laying out of Jesus' body in the tomb. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea stand at either end of the body. The Apostle John (with the red halo) places his and on Jesus' chest, and behind him stand Mary and Mary Magdalene. The surrounding roundels present Old Testament analogs of Jesus' burial.

The roundels on the left picture the beginning and end of Judges 16:1-31, the last days of Samson. In verses 1-3 the Philistines hear that Samson is in Gaza sleeping with a prostitute, so they arrange to ambush him at the city gate, as pictured in the upper left roundel. But Samson rests in bed until midnight and breaks out of the city by tearing the doors of its gates. Gregory the Great interpreted this part of the story as analogous to Christ's resting in his grave until breaking out on the third day (Glossa Ordinaria II, 255). The lower left roundel illustrates verse 31: Samson's brothers and kinfolk bury him in the sepulchre of his father.

In the upper right roundel Jonah is tossed from the ship into the jaws of the great fish, where he stays until he is released after three days (Jonah 1:4 to 2:11). Jesus himself presented this as a type of his coming death and resurrection (Matthew 12:40), and the connection is expounded in The Mirror of Salvation (Labriola, 73.).

Finally, the lower right roundel pictures Daniel in the lions' den. The inscription compares his being shut up in the den with Christ's being buried in the tomb. Curiously, no lion is pictured.

The Resurrection

Jesus steps forward as if from a sarcophagus, a very common way of presenting his resurrection. But the arch behind his feet suggests he is exiting the tomb "hewn out in a rock" in Matthew 27:60. The two angels flanking the tomb are from John 20:12.

In the half-roundel on the left the dove brings the olive leaf to Noah (Genesis 8:11), signaling an end to his time in the ark, just as the Resurrection brings an end to Christ's time in the tomb. The upper half-roundel pictures Jonah's exit from the mouth of the great fish.

On the right Rahab helps one of the Israelite spies to escape from the city of Jericho by climbing down its outer wall (Joshua 2:15). The reason for choosing this episode is obscure. Perhaps the designers wanted it because the spies are escaping from a hostile city, as Jesus did from the tomb. Or it may relate to Rahab's advice that the spies hide themselves in the mountains for three days, precisely the time that Jesus lay in the tomb. After three days, she explains, the Jerichoans searching the countryside for them will have given up and returned to the city.

Below the Resurrection image we see what appears to be an angel addressing a bearded shepherd. I would hazard a guess that the shepherd is Joachim, the father of Mary, who in the Protevangelium goes into exile with his flocks after he is shamed by the Temple priests. An angel eventually appears to him and says it is time to return to Jerusalem and meet up with his wife at the Golden Gate.

The Ascension

This is the "Gothic" type of Ascension image, common in the West in the late 12th through the 15th centuries. Mary and the Apostles look up at Jesus as he rises into a cloud so that only his feet are visible. It is very common for Mary to be pictured in the center of the group.

I have not been able to identify the scenes to the right of the Ascension panel. On the left the upper roundel pictures Elijah rising into Heaven on a fiery chariot (II Kings 2:11-12), an obvious counterpart to the ascension of Jesus. The figure watching him from below is Elisha.

In the lower roundel a priest offers incense before the altar in the Temple. It is pictured here because incense rises to Heaven, like Christ in the Ascension and like prayers that make their way up to the Lord (Psalm 140:2). To the right of the priest is the altar; above the altar is the Ark of the Covenant, and above that are two cherubim facing each other, as in Exodus 25:17-21. At the left of the priest, standing at the Temple curtain, is one of the Gershonites, who were charged with the maintenance of "the hanging…that is hanged in the entry of the court of the tabernacle" (Numbers 3:21-26).

The Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles

In most images of the "Pentecost" event (Acts 2:1-4) the tongues of fire emanate from a dove representing the Holy Spirit, but here the source of the fire is Christ. He is pictured as in traditional images of Christ in Majesty: flanked by angels, holding a book, and as in many other examples standing on a blue disc that represents his rule over all the earth.

Pentecost has traditionally been considered the day when "the Church was made manifest to the world,"2 so the three Old Testament events that surround the Pentecost panel reference three key moments in the institution of the laws and practices given to the Israelites. In the half-roundel below the central panel God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses. In the right half-roundel Jethro sees Moses sitting in judgment over the Israelites and urges him to appoint subordinate judges for minor matters (Exodus 18:12-26). The two main figures are identified as "Moyses" and "Iethro" in an otherwise identical image in the Jesus window nearby. The figures looking up to Moses would thus represent the Israelites who have been coming to him for judgment.

The left half-roundel has a man in pink placing a mitre on the head of a kneeling person while two others wearing mitres raise their hands. The scene looks much like the medieval ordination of a bishop, but in the medieval rite the one ordaining would be a bishop and would wear a mitre. The person ordaining in this image has no mitre because he is Moses, instituting Aaron as high priest. The two mitred men on the left would then be two of Aaron's sons, who were instituted as priests at the same time. (See Exodus 28, especially Exodus 28:40-41.)

View this image in full resolution.

Read more about images of the Crucifixion.
Read more about images of Moses.
Read more about images of Aaron.
Read more about images of the Entombment.
Read more about images of Samson.
Read more about images of Jonah.
Read more about images of Daniel.
Read more about images of the Resurrection.
Read more about images of Noah.
Read more about images of St. Joachim.
Read more about images of the Ascension.
Read more about images of Elijah.
Read more about images of Pentecost.

Photographed at the cathedral by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.


1 Glossa Ordinaria I, 1255-56. The Mirror of Salvation, 61.

2 Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶1076.