Holy Week in Art: the Resurrection
“He is risen! He is risen indeed!"
Those words echo through Christian churches large and small across the globe on Easter Sunday as Christians gather to celebrate. Easter marks the end of the season of Lent and Holy Week and commemorates the day when Jesus rose from the dead after having been crucified. This event is depicted more often than any other in Christian art.
According to the scriptures two women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, went to the tomb to attend to Jesus' body. Jesus had been crucified three days earlier, but because the sabbath was coming, they had not had much time to prepare the body for burial. So, after the sabbath (the day of rest), the two women went to finish their task. At the tomb, however, they found an angel who told them that Jesus had risen from the dead because he was the son of God. The angel sent them to Galilee where he told them that Jesus would meet them.
Michelangelo's depiction of the resurrection is more figurative than literal. He was commissioned to sculpt the Risen Christ surrounded by the symbols of the Crucifixion: the cross, the nails, and a crown of thorns.
Christ’s foot bears an even greater significance than the modern viewer appreciates. According to the apocryphyl book, The Acts of Peter, Peter fled Rome knowing that he was to be executed. However, as he set out on the Appian Way Jesus, long since crucified, appeared to him on the road.
This appearance occurred at the site of Domine Quo Vadis along the Via Appia Antica. The church now contains a replica of a stone with Christ’s footprints in it – the original sits in San Sebastiano down the road. The footprints, according to tradition, were made as Christ stood with Peter on the road and have drawn pilgrims for centuries.
Michelangelo’s Christ presses down with one foot leaving a footprint in the stone upon which he stands. He may have intended this to be a reminder of Christ’s appearance in Rome, emphasizing the holiness of Rome as the center of Christianity. Because relics and pilgrimage held such an important place in Renaissance Christianity, depicting Jesus in Rome would have emphasized the connection between the political center of the church and the spiritual center of the church – reaffirming the mandate of the popes for the same Peter to whom Jesus appeared is held up as the first pope – “the rock.”
While everything in Michelangelo's world was complicated and often political, I simply want to wish you a joyous Easter!