Faith through Art: Praying with the Resurrected Son of God
By Norman Farmer
This unforgettable life-size fresco of the Risen Christ stepping resolutely from the tomb was painted in 1467 by Piero della Francesca for the City Hall (Palazzo Publico) of Sansepolcro, the artist’s Tuscan birthplace. Rising to the personal and public challenges of these circumstances, he painted one of the most famous and deeply revered masterpieces of Catholic sacred art. What is more, he envisioned the crowning moment of salvation history in a way that earns this painting a place alongside St. Paul’s great homily on the Resurrection to the Corinthians (I Cor 15). For as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explained in “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week” (Ignatius, 2011), “the Christian faith stands or falls with the truth of the testimony that Christ is risen from the dead.” For sure, Piero della Francesca visually proclaims that testimony for all times.
The setting is the dawn of a day unlike any other since God “created the heavens and the earth,” saying, “Let there be light” (Gn 1:1-5). Though it is still below the horizon, the sun tints the clouds in the eastern sky, preparing the day for what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI calls an “entirely new reality” which is about to break in upon the world: “Only if Jesus is risen has anything really new occurred that changes the world and the situation of mankind ... Whether Jesus merely was, or whether he also is – this depends on the Resurrection. In answering yes or no to this question, we are taking a stand not simply on one event among others, but on the figure of Jesus as such” (p. 242).
Piero takes precisely that stand as the mystical halo of the risen Christ outshines the rising sun as the brightest light in the firmament of dawn, calling to mind Jesus’ words, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” And what a light it is!
Today, Piero’s setting for the Resurrection retains its identity as the wooded slopes that line the upper Tiber valley. Here, in the first light of dawn, a pair of leafless, dry trees loom on the Lord’s right while leafy green trees appear to his left. Thus does Piero evoke the prophecy of Ezekiel that the Lord will restore Israel under a messianic king from the dynasty of David: “all the trees of the field shall know that I, the Lord, bring low the high tree, lift high the lowly tree, wither up the green tree, and make the withered tree bloom” (Ez 17:24). Accordingly, with his right hand signifying the Gospel, the future, and wisdom or knowledge of divine realities, Christ boldly plants the banner of the Resurrection among the sodden, hapless agents of Caesar and Herod sleeping in the dust from which they were created (Gn 3:19). And Piero even confesses his own sinful humanity and his personal hope in the Resurrection by painting his own features on the soldier who rests his head against the shaft of the banner.
The theologically informed and divinely inspired artistry that raises Piero’s vision of the Resurrected Christ to unprecedented levels of Christian art is especially evident in his depiction of what Msgr. Romano Guardini calls “the dual character of the Christ” found in the Gospel accounts of Easter. “Corporal limitations no longer hamper him; the barriers of time and space have ceased to exist. He moves with a freedom impossible upon earth. Yet the Evangelists stress equally the fact that this is the same Jesus of Nazareth. No mere spirit, but the corporal Lord who had living among them,” he writes in “The Lord” (Regnery, 1953). Such is the visual miracle of Piero’s great painting that he can represent the mysteries of that duality in a figure that is both human and divine.
To accomplish the depths he reveals here, Piero synthesized the 500-year history of the only township in Italy dedicated to the mystery of the Holy Sepulcher, back to the year 934. In that year, two pilgrims returning from Jerusalem –– Saints Arcano and Egidio –– stopped there to rest. Arcano dreamed that they should found a town here, so they built a tiny chapel on the same wooded slopes that Piero depicts in his painting. They dedicated it with a stone brought from the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The stone sits in the lower right corner of the fresco: a relic that epitomizes the spiritual history of Sansepolcro.
Then there is the face and expression of the Resurrected Christ, which also resonates with the history of his birthplace. The preternatural eyes of the Risen Lord bore into our own eyes as we gaze in awe and wonder at this unforgettable image. They are the very eyes of Borgo Sansepolcro’s oldest and most deeply venerated icon: the anonymous ninth century wooden sculpture of the Risen Savior, known as the Volto Santo. Those unblinking and eternal eyes see everything! They transfix the viewer, as could only the eyes of the one “who is the beginning, the first-born of the dead; that in all things he may hold the primacy: because in him, it hath pleased the Father, that all fullness should dwell” (Col 1:18). Satan flees those eyes, but Christ’s true friends take eternal courage and comfort from those all-seeing, all-knowing eyes of God’s only begotten Son.