Sunday, April 12, 2009

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 today as Christians gather to celebrate Easter.  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. 
Following the phenomenal success of the Sistine Chapel commission, Michelangelo
found himself in great demand. The next commission he accepted, however, was a small one for a patron named Metello Vari: The Risen Christ, to be installed in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Michelangelo signed the contract for the commission in June 1514 and began the work almost immediately. Unfortunately, he chose a flawed block of marble and had to abandon the first attempt.

After the death of Pope Julius II, the papal conclave chose a Medici pope, Leo X, who loved art and grandeur. Leo X set Michelangelo to work on the Chapel of Pope Leo X in Castel Sant’Angelo and the façade of the church of San Lorenzo in Florence. Both papal commissions interfered with Michelangelo’s progress on The Risen Christ, but in 1518, while juggling other projects, he selected a second block of marble and began the work again. The sculpture took three years to complete and was installed in March 1521. The contract for the piece called for “a marble Christ, large as life, nude.” The concept of Jesus in the nude shows the powerful influence of ancient art: indeed, Christ looks like classical images of Apollo. Squeamish clergy later added a gilded loincloth to the figure, which remains today.

As with Moses and David, Michelangelo manipulated the figure’s proportions tohis own purposes, but this manipulation has raised criticism because the intentions of the distortion are not immediately obvious. The figure appears to be disproportional from several angles, with a large torso and skinny legs; from behind, it looks misshapen. But when viewed from the left, the sculpture comes into focus. Jesus’s stance forces the cross to the forefront, and his body disappears behind it. Unfinished patches on the back of the sculpture indicate that Michelangelo did not intend for the viewer to see Christ’s back.

Michelangelo showed keen awareness of lighting and placement as a sculptor and as an architect. The natural lighting in Santa Maria sopra Minerva is dim and angled, coming from high windows. Critics argue that Michelangelo planned The Risen Christ using his understanding of light effects. Contemporary sketches show that The Risen Christ was originally placed in a niche in the wall to be seen from one viewpoint. The niche, representing the tomb, allows the sculpture to emerge from “the shadow of death” and directs the viewer to the most proportional view of the piece.

Michelangelo’s contemporaries adored the work. The painter Sebastiano del Piombo wrote that “the knees of that figure are worth all of Rome.” Indeed, the sculpture became an object venerated and adored by the faithful. Jesus’s foot, stroked and kissed for centuries, has at times been covered by a brass slipper to keep it from wearing away. 
from A Journey into Michelangelo's Rome by Angela K. Nickerson (page 81-83)

Christ’s foot bears an even greater significance than the modern viewer appreciates.  According to the apocraphyl 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.
“And as he went forth of the city, he saw the Lord entering into Rome. And when he saw him, he said: Lord, whither goest thou thus (or here)? And the Lord said unto him: I go into Rome to be crucified. And Peter said unto him: Lord, art thou (being) crucified again? He said unto him: Yea, Peter, I am (being) crucified again. And Peter came to himself: and having beheld the Lord ascending up into heaven, he returned to Rome, rejoicing, and glorifying the Lord, for that he said: I am being crucified: the which was about to befall Peter” (translated by M. R. James, 1924).
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!

Interested in visiting the locations mentioned in this post?  Check out this map:
View Michelangelo's Risen Christ in a larger map


lakeviewer said...

Very interesting and informative blog. I'll return. Thanks.

Rena said...

Another beautiful blog entry, Angela. Thank you.

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