In the first of these two articles marking the Christian festival of Easter, I showed a small selection of the many paintings of the Crucifixion. That’s only half the festival, though; after the suffering, death and burial of Good Friday comes the Resurrection, without which Easter and the whole of Christian belief would be worthless. Yet paintings of Resurrection scenes are far fewer in number, and even fewer are by major masters.
In the New Testament Gospels (e.g. John 20:11-18), it was Mary Magdalene who was the first witness to the resurrected Christ. As he had not at that time ascended to heaven, Christ warned her not to touch him – in Latin, noli me tangere – but to tell the disciples of his resurrection.
This painting of Noli me tangere from around 1368-70 has been attributed to Jacopo di Cione, and shows Mary Magdalene kneeling with her hands outstretched towards the resurrected Christ. He is carrying an adze, which may be a reference to his harrowing of hell.
In the right panel of Rogier van der Weyden’s Miraflores Altar from about 1440, the risen Christ, still bearing his stigmata, is accompanied by a background scene showing the Resurrection, with three sleepy soldiers, Christ standing beside his empty tomb, and a winged angel. In the distance are all three Marys.
Probably the greatest of all paintings of the Resurrection is Veronese’s Supper at Emmaus from about 1559. At its heart is the gospel narrative: after his Resurrection, Christ appeared several times to his disciples. In this episode, two disciples had travelled on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus as pilgrims, and recognised Christ as he “sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave it to them.”
The painting contains separate passages which cue this narrative: on the far left is an asynchronous ‘flashback’ if you like which refers to the journey to Emmaus. Christ is in the centre of the painting, with a halo to indicate his identity, and is in the midst of breaking bread. With him at the table are the two bearded figures of the disciples, dressed as pilgrims, and bearing staves. On Christ’s right is a servant, acting as waiter to the group.
This leaves us to account for the other onlookers: three men, a woman, five boys, four girls, and a baby, together with assorted pet animals. The adults and children are dressed in contemporary costume, rather than the robes of the early first century, and it is that which makes it clear that this is also a family portrait, part of the narrative of the life of an aristocratic Italian family of the day. It isn’t impossible to intertwine two separate narratives 1500 years apart in a single text or oral story, but unusual and a more conspicuous artifice than this painting appears.
Tintoretto painted The Resurrection of Christ with Saints Cassian and Cecilia in 1565. This features the church’s Saint Cassiano wearing his bishop’s rig at the left, and Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music and musicians, at the right by a miniature pipe organ. Saint Cassiano is reputed to have been martyred in 303 CE when he was a bishop, during the persecutions of the Roman emperor Diocletian, and his relics were enshrined in Novellara, in central northern Italy.
In her Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene from 1581, Lavinia Fontana re-locates the ‘noli me tangere’ encounter between Mary and Jesus, giving him the garb of a mediaeval Italian gardener.
The eccentric Alessandro Magnasco has painted his Noli Me Tangere (1705-10) over a background of ruins made by his collaborator. Christ is shown standing, holding a long-hafted implement, probably a spade, in his left hand. Mary is on her knees, a small urn in front of her. Their clothes are rough, and Christ’s appear to be his burial linen, blowing in the wind. Several small putti are shown on the left side, apparently blowing as winds.
Anton Raphael Mengs’ Noli me tangere from 1769 is one of a cycle of four paintings on the Passion of Christ which the Spanish King Carlos III commissioned for his bedroom.
William Blake’s Christ Appearing to His Disciples/Apostles After the Resurrection is one of his large colour print series from 1795, which refers to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 24 verses 36-40:
And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, “Peace be unto you.” But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, “Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet.
Late in the nineteenth century, Eugène Burnand’s most successful painting was The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Tomb on the Morning of the Resurrection from 1898, now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Their faces and hands tell so much, which is quite a surprise from an artist who had concentrated on landscapes.
This tiny painting of the Resurrection (1885) by Albert Pinkham Ryder is another Noli me tangere, but has sadly suffered deterioration in its paint layer.
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s Why seek ye the living among the dead? (St Luke, Chapter XIV, verse 5) (1896) refers to the well-known resurrection scene in which Mary Magdalene and companion(s) return to Christ’s tomb, only to find its door open and the tomb empty. They are then greeted by two men who inform them that Christ has risen from the dead.
Stanhope depicts this in the style of a frieze, the four figures arranged across the painting in a single parallel plane. Although part of a quite complex Gospel narrative, he depicts only a limited window from the story, and in doing so makes his painting simpler and more direct than his earlier narrative works.
I wish you all a very peaceful Easter. Never forget the Resurrection to come.