The Resurrection in Art

What exactly happened to Jesus at his resurrection? What are the challenges for artists in portraying this extraordinary event? In this article Fleur Dorrell looks at the evidence we do have as well as some of the artists who have tried to respond to the challenge.

Matthew 28: 6-7

He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

The Resurrection Day. ID 144016896 © Philip Steury.

What exactly happened to Jesus at his resurrection? And what are the challenges for artists in portraying this extraordinary event? In this article we look at the evidence we do have as well as some of the artists who have tried to respond to the challenge.

Where in the Bible does the resurrection occur?

We read in the New Testament that after the Romans crucified Jesus he was buried in a new tomb but three days later God raised him from the dead. Jesus then appeared in human form to many people over 40 days before his Ascension into Heaven, to sit at the Right Hand of God until the end of time.

All four gospels writers are not that clear about the nature or exact time of the resurrection; they just say it happened and it’s the responses from other people that provide us with some more clues.

The resurrection story appears in more than five parts of the Bible: the four gospels and in Acts. We read of three groups of events connected to the death and resurrection of Jesus: The trial before Pilate, crucifixion and burial; the discovery of the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances.

Clues in the texts

Nowhere do we read of the actual moment of resurrection which is why it’s so hard to imagine precisely how it happened, let alone paint it with real confidence. Although there is no definitive account of the resurrection of Jesus or his after-appearances, there are three pointers at which all the writers converge:

  1. The connection between the empty tomb tradition of which the guards were watching over, and the visit of the women on “the first day of the week”.
  2. That Jesus chose to appear to women first (Mary Magdalene is the most prominent but there are other women); and to commission Mary Magdalene to proclaim this crucial fact to the disciples, including Peter and the other apostles.
  3. The detail of the stone that had closed the tomb after Jesus’ burial.
The Three Women on the Tomb of Christ by Irma Martin. 1843. Private Collection. Wikimedia Commons

Women are key eyewitnesses in most of the gospels. They stay faithful, understand deeply and share the good news quickly. They contrast with the male disciples who are shaky in their belief before and after Jesus’ death.

Then there’s the five key post-resurrection venues:
1. Upper Room – the doors were locked out of fear of violence but here Thomas makes his declaration of faith in Jesus.
2. Road to Emmaus – two disciples do not recognise Jesus until he breaks bread with them.
3. Beside the Sea of Galilee – Jesus commands Peter to serve all his followers.
4. Bethany and Jerusalem – Jesus’ final appearance 40 days after his resurrection, he then ascends to heaven to be with God and the Holy Spirit until his Second Coming.
5. The road to Damascus – Paul converts to Christianity because he experiences a vision of the vision Jesus now identified with the community – Why are you persecuting me?

In these places we notice Jesus performing activities not normally possible for the dead such as, walking, talking, eating and blessing. Early writers and artists each attempted to express the human and divine through as many means as possible in the hope of capturing the essence of the resurrection and its truth about God’s plan for our salvation. As St Paul proclaims in 1 Corinthians 15:14: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain”. Thus the resurrection of Jesus stands at the basis of our faith. In both Western and Eastern theology it was made a matter of doctrine and is included in the three professions of faith: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed:

“On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures”.

The cosmic significance of the resurrection

The resurrection takes on a cosmic significance first indicated in the gospels when we read of the earthquake and lighting in Matthew 28: 1-10, echoing the sky darkening at the time of Jesus’ death, and the drama of the Temple curtain tearing in all three synoptic gospels; and the journey of the star in Jesus’ birth in Matthew chapter 2. We read of angels and spirits ministering at crucial points such as to Mary before and at Jesus’ birth, with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the empty tomb, in the Upper Room and at the Ascension. St Clement of Rome, writing at the end of the first century, develops the analogies on resurrection which Paul has already made, drawing on the natural cycle of seeds seemingly dying and bearing fruit in new life:

“Let us consider, beloved, how the Master is continually proving to us that there will be a future resurrection, of which he has made the Lord Jesus Christ the firstling, by raising him from the dead. Let us look, beloved, at the resurrection which is taking place seasonally. Day and night make known the resurrection to us. The night sleeps, the day arises. Consider the plants that grow. How and in what manner does the sowing take place? The sower went forth and cast each of the seeds onto the ground; and they fall to the ground, parched and bare, where they decay. Then from their decay the greatness of the master’s providence raises them up, and from the one grain more grow and bring forth fruit”
Letter to the Corinthians 24:1–6 [A.D. 80].

Similarly, St Ambrose writing in the 4th century sees the resurrection of Jesus as initiating the fulfilment of the whole of creation:

“In Christ the world has risen, heaven has risen, the earth has risen”.
De Fide Resurrectionis, ii.102 (P.L.16:1344).

This cosmic aspect of the resurrection was especially linked to redemption, and the renewal and rebirth of the world in the East. To represent this in art it was symbolized by combining the moment of the resurrection with the descent of Christ into hell in many 4th – 6th century icons and paintings. So Jesus travels between hell and heaven, literally with one foot in each place. This becomes celebrated on Holy Saturday, between the death on Good Friday and the Resurrection on Easter Sunday with the “Harrowing of Hell” when Jesus descends to the underworld to preach the Gospel to all who have died before him. This is registered in the early baptismal Apostles’ Creed as “he descended into Hell…”

The use of symbolism in the resurrection

Traditionally, artists have opted to paint the resurrection as a single moment in time or as part of Jesus’ life cycle on earth. As the resurrection as a reality that breaks out of space and time is so difficult to imagine or define, we often see the resurrection represented in symbols such as the Chi Rho symbol (the first two Greek letters of Christ). Or Jesus clasps a victory flag flanked by angels holding laurel wreaths and palms since he has defeated death.

The mosaic of Resurrection of Jesus in St. George’s Anglican Church, Jerusalem, Israel. Late 19th century.  
ID 51858106 © Jozef Sedmak,

There is Jesus climbing out of a sarcophagus in mid-step while soldiers sleep unaware, to capture the moment and the movement from this earth to heaven. Other artists used the empty tomb motif to indicate his rising, while women visited and mourned his death amid angels pointing upwards to where Christ had disappeared. But when Christ’s absence was emphasised, it implied that his resurrection had been and gone, which created a whole new sequence of events to be painted and understood. Notable are the paintings of Jesus meeting Mary Magdalene after his Resurrection; Jesus sharing a meal with his disciples in various places; Jesus showing Thomas his side; his Ascension into heaven and his sending of the Holy Spirit to commission them on Pentecost day.

The power of the resurrection

The emergence of floating or hovering Christs was denounced at The Council of Trent (1545–1563) as being not human enough. An older idea was sought in order to promote Christ as having his feet firmly on the ground, whether leaping out of a sarcophagus, or standing upright, holding a victory flag. The resurrection was a bodily event and not just a spiritual or supernatural appearance. This belief was generally promoted in art until the 19th century. However, the arrival of abstract art enabled modern artists to convey the metaphysical nature of the resurrection more easily, and to create the concept of movement through and outside of time and space without diminishing Christ’s humanity in the process.

No matter how we see and understand the resurrection in art, there are five aspects of its power for us to consider visually:

a) the physical nature of Jesus’ human body rising from the dead, returning in the flesh to earth for a short period of time in order to eat, speak and pray with a number of people.

b) the non-rational explanation of how a physical body can be resurrected after death, and of how a human body can travel beyond time and space.

c) the interaction between the divine and the human, and this world and the next.

d) the deeper meaning behind the resurrection both for the present and future which provides a vehicle for religious truth, faithful devotion and salvation for the world.

e) the other details and information provided by the New Testament Gospels and Letters. The Gospel texts are trying to combat two tendencies – the Greek tendency to spiritualise the resurrection as the soul or life force of Jesus continuing, and the Jewish tendency to see it as a re-animation of his corpse like that of Lazarus. Both tendencies would undermine the uniqueness of the resurrection.

Resurrection icons

For Christian viewers until the 16th century, the act of reading a painting or an icon was synonymous with the act of reading the Bible. The references and symbols embedded in these artistic and devotional aids would have been more immediate to the viewer.

Icon of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Teplodar, Ukraine.
ID 150166021 © Anatolii63,

Here is a modern Ukrainian icon from a church in Teplodar, Odessa. This resurrection icon celebrates much more than the moment itself since Orthodox icons do not simply show us the Risen Christ, or the empty tomb. They convey that the victory shown by Christ has both happened and is complete for all time. We see Jesus in the centre robed in bright white.

His garment is billowing upwards to indicate his direction of travel, from the descent into hell to save souls still waiting there, to his new life and journey beyond. Jesus holds an Orthodox cross which has a short bar at the top to represent the sign that was nailed to his cross, and a diagonal bar at the bottom to indicate the foot-rest on the cross. The use of the diagonal refers to the inevitable spasm of Jesus’ foot that would have knocked it out of place. The left side pointing downwards to hell, the right side pointing upwards to heaven. Christ wears a gold halo with the names of the Trinity inscribed in a cross.

Jesus is surrounded by blue concentric circles studded with gold stars. As an adaptation of the mandorla (Italian for almond shape), it represents the uncreated, eternal light of Christ so reminiscent in John’s Gospel. This is the same light that the apostles experienced at Jesus’ Transfiguration. The light that darkness could not overcome, in spite of the perpetual darkness of hell or Hades when Christ descended and brought life and light into the realm of death. It is also the light of faith that is seen with the heart rather than the eyes. As we look more closely at the circle, we see shades of darker blues toward Christ, emphasising the pure light and mystery of God described in Revelation 10:7; and the nature of our own death and new life made possible through Christ’s resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:50-58.

Christ stands firmly on two pieces of red wood lying in such a way as to form a cross encased in a black background. The wood represents the gates of hell, which Christ shattered through the grace and glory of his death. With his death, they closed, but were not powerful enough to hold out against him. We read of this same image in Matthew 16:17-19 when Jesus built his church upon Peter, and proclaimed that the gates of hell would not prevail against it.

On either side of the wood are two stone sarcophagi set within the rocks and filled with Biblical figures. In every resurrection icon Jesus is shown pulling an old man in green from the tomb which we see on our left. This is Adam, the first man, illustrating Christ’s victory as the ‘new Adam’ who redeems humanity from the beginning. Eve wearing red behind Adam is waiting to be rescued next. Significantly, Jesus does not hold Adam’s hand, he grasps it by the wrist, showing that we are not equal before God. It is also a summons, that if we reach out to God, he is ready to take us with him to heaven. Then we see Abel with his shepherd’s staff and possibly Moses or two other Old Testament prophets.

The figures standing on the other side are John the Baptist, King David and King Solomon and another unnamed prophet. Their presence signifies their importance in the story of salvation and that those who died before Jesus’ death patiently awaited their Messiah. Now Jesus, through his death and resurrection has freed them all to join him and God.

Resurrection and emotion

Our next painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Burne-Jones, focuses on Mary Magdalene’s extraordinary encounter with Jesus as she went to visit his tomb early in the morning, recounted in John 20:14 when ‘…she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.’

Burne-Jones wanted to show the hiatus between an event and its effect – here, that of Mary Magdalene seeing, and then recognising Christ. Mary Magdalene, is shrouded in a brown robe that covers her whole body, echoing the Old Testament importance of covering oneself before a visitation from God. She stands between two seated angels that are attired in a similar fashion although with colossal wings and co-ordinated footwear. Light surrounds the heads of the angels, perched upon a red sarcophagus from which the lid has been removed. Each angel holds a hand up to their mouth in a manner which might suggest shock, but in fact they are making the ancient sign of adoration, of covering their mouth.

The Morning of the Resurrection by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1886. Oil on wood.
Tate Britain and National Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

Mary Magdalene, turning her left shoulder to Christ while holding up her right hand on the rock face to steady herself, appears to be alarmed by the situation, while Jesus stands firm, calm and at peace. Jesus, robed in blue, is the only person here to maintain his own balance while his halo illuminates his face. The fabric on the two angels’ clothing echoes classical sculptures and is repeated in the textures of the cave interior. While Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s robes mirror each other’s folds since this meeting is really between them. By being seated, these angels who have guarded the empty tomb, provide us with another plane which contrasts with Mary Magdalene’s off kilter stance.

If we look from left to right, we observe a subtle range of emotions and gestures in motion; collectively they create a sense of awe and wonder at the reality that is unfolding in front of them. But also, the use of verticals and horizontals heightens the sorrow of the moment before, since each figure stands apart in their experience. Mary Magdalene retains a ghost-like demeanour of someone still grieving while yearning for a loved one; and Burne-Jones captures this shift from melancholy to surprise to enlightenment by showing her both protecting herself while being transfixed by Jesus. The importance of this being the morning of the first day of the week stands in a long tradition of ancient writers, including Dante who believed that early morning was the optimum time to dream prophetically, and when the Divine truth was most likely to appear. Unlike many resurrection images, here we have a silent dialogue communicated between four figures: Christ, two angels and a woman, as they share this morning miracle and Easter glory.

Our final resurrection painting explores two men who are critical to the resurrection story and its proclamation to the world, also narrated in John’s gospel.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’ So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.” John 20:1-4

The disciples Peter and John running to the tomb on the morning of the resurrection
by Eugène Burnand. 1898. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons

In this painting by the Swiss artist and illustrator Eugène Burnand, we see Peter and John, the beloved disciple, completely focused on running towards a place that is not in this picture. They are running to see if Mary Magdalene is right. The landscape behind them clearly shows how early it is. John is on our left dressed in white while Peter is on our right, older, with a scraggy beard and heavier clothing.

Their hair is wind-blown but each holds their hands in different positions. John keeps his hands close to his chest, clenched in quiet prayer, while Peter, needing to ensure his cloak doesn’t fall off, presents a simple counterbalance to his body in motion by holding onto the one thing he can do in this mind-blowing day. They are frowning with their mouths slightly open to suggest being able to breathe on the go as well as anticipatory shock at what might await them.

Both disciples convey a range of expressions in their pursuit of belief. They are anxious, hopeful, frightened and determined: they really need to get to the tomb as quickly as possible. If what Mary Magdalene says is true then their world is about to topple over for a second time in one week. If she has imagined it, then they will have to live with the tragedy of Christ’s death once again.

In this painting Burnand, himself a devout Christian, wishes to explore the possibility of faith in the extraordinary, the seen and the unseen in the charged context of an ordinary countryside. This is the resurrection on the run and the beginning of our Christian faith.