How to Read Paintings: The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca
An image of grandeur and eminence that describes Christ’s victory over death
This painting shows Christ rising again on the third day after his death. The event of the Resurrection is one of the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith.
The artist, Piero della Francesca, has pictured Christ stepping out of his Roman-style sarcophagus. Piero followed the artistic tradition of showing Jesus with one foot on the upper ledge, as if he is literally climbing out of his tomb. He would remain on earth for forty days until the Ascension — the Christian belief of Jesus’s bodily ascent into heaven.
In the painting, Christ stands upright watching us with a compelling gaze. In one hand he holds a flag — a banner with a red cross, symbolising the victory of the Resurrection over death — whilst the other hand rests confidently on his knee. His body has real weight and substance; the way his robe hangs from his shoulder recalls a Greek god or a Roman emperor.
Despite having followed artistic traditions, Piero has created a remarkable image of the Resurrection, not least because of Christ’s triumphant posture. The guards sent to watch over his tomb have all fallen asleep — subdued by their ignorance. Christ has resurrected and stands before us, boldly proclaiming his return. I can think of no other depiction of Christ that is so imperial, so directly ardent.
To get a sense of the grandeur of Christ’s posture, compare this depiction to a 19th century image of the Roman god Jupiter, painted by the French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. I can’t be alone in thinking that the later painting owes a debt of influence to the earlier work. The comparison should at least demonstrate how the conventions of bodily posture have been used by artists to show splendour and eminence in their subject matter.
There were no direct witnesses to the moment of Christ’s Resurrection. Since there was no scriptural guidance, the church avoided the portrayal of the subject for many centuries. It was only in the 14th and 15th centuries that the representation became more widespread and in this growth, took on a more devotional rather than narrative emphasis.
Piero drew on Classical traditions in the composition of the work, with a stress on geometric order and harmony. This can be seen not only in Christ’s posture but in the entire layout, which uses a triangle as its basic form, where Christ’s head sits at the apex. This form adds a degree of formal gravity to the image. In addition, the trees of the landscape behind are placed almost-symmetrically on either side of Jesus. The trees on the left are leafless, indicating the barren setting of winter, whereas those on the right are in the flush of springtime — symbolic of the hope of the Resurrection.
Piero was commissioned to paint the Resurrection sometime in the early 1460s. It was made as a fresco work for the civic hall of Sansepolcro in Tuscany, Italy. The specific room where the fresco sits was the meeting hall for the Conservator — the chief magistrates and governors of the town.
The location of the fresco has an important bearing on its meaning, since the building — the Palazzo dei Conservatori di Sansepolcro — played an important role in the civic life of the town. Placed high on the interior wall facing the entrance, the magistrates and governors would have prayed to the image before starting their councils.
Thus, the painting was not just a description of the glory of Christ’s Resurrection but also a comment on the eminence of the city of Sansepolcro. Indeed, the name of the city means Holy Sepulchre, deriving from the presence of two relics of the Holy Sepulchre carried by pilgrims in the 9th century. The magistrates and governors, about to undertake their civic duties, would pass before the painting and be reminded of the esteem of their city’s heritage — and the gravity of their present responsibilities.
My name is Christopher P Jones and I’m an art historian, critic and the author of How to Read Paintings. (Click link for Kindle, Apple, Kobo and other e-reader devices).
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