“‘O truly blessed Night,’ sings the Exultet of the Easter Vigil, ‘which alone deserved to know the time and the hour when Christ rose from the realm of the dead!’ But no one was an eyewitness to Christ’s Resurrection and no evangelist describes it. No one can say how it came about physically.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §647)
With all of the images of the moment of Christ’s Resurrection that have been painted and sculpted across the centuries, it is perhaps easy to forget that these are images born entirely in the theological imaginations of the artists themselves—that they are not based on any historical account of the moment when the stone was rolled away by angels (or perhaps by an earthquake?) and Christ emerged from the tomb. As the Catechism continues, “Although the Resurrection was an historical event that could be verified by the sign of the empty tomb and by the reality of the apostles’ encounters with the risen Christ, still it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history” (CCC, §647).
Put another way, the Resurrection is, at its very heart, a mystery of faith. In fact, it is the mystery of faith. As St. Paul declares, “If Christ is not raised [from the dead], your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:17). Given this, one could argue that images of the Resurrection of Jesus are, in a particular and unique way, images born of the artist’s faith. Extending this argument further, one could also make a case that every artist who chooses to depict Christ rising from the dead becomes a witness to his Resurrection, and their works of art serve as their testimonies, declaring to all who view them that Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified, died, and was buried, was been raised from the dead in glory on the third day and is now alive forever.
Few images of the Resurrection can rival Matthias Grünewald’s depiction from the famous Isenheim altarpiece. In the striking color and dramatic contrasts of this image, the words of the Exsultet find visual resonance: “Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness.” In Grünewald’s painting, the golden light of the sun and the silver light of the moon seem to merge behind the head of the risen Christ, and the stars shimmer with an even greater brilliance against the midnight sky, the only witnesses to the Resurrection. “O truly blessed night, worthy alone to know the time and hour when Christ rose from the underworld!”
Yet the beauty of the scenery is nothing compared to the beauty of the risen Christ. Against the darkness, Christ breaks forth from the tomb with the dazzling light of the sun—the dawn of a new creation. His Body radiates with life, a life more real than anything ever experienced on earth before. His glorified wounds seem to pulsate with light as they testify to the love of the One who bears them—the One who trampled down death by his Death on the Cross. The brilliance of Christ’s face is one with the radiance of the sun and the moon; indeed, it seems here as though Christ’s face is the true source of light, and that sun and moon merely reflect his glory. “In [his] light, we see light” (Psalm 36:9).
In addition, Christ’s Body is nearly translucent in its glorified state, reflecting the reality that “in his risen body [Jesus] passes from the state of death to another life beyond time and space. At Jesus’ Resurrection his body is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit: he shares the divine life in his glorious state, so that St. Paul can say that Christ is ‘the man from heaven’” (CCC, §646). Finally, as he emerges from the tomb triumphant over death, the One “through whom all things were made” greets creation with a benevolent smile: now all is fulfilled. Now his joy is complete. “Now have salvation and power come, the reign of our God and the authority of his Anointed One” (Revelation 12:10). In the mystery of this smile, Christ beckons us to imitate his example of love that gives unto the end, so that where he has gone, we might also follow.
In this extraordinary painting, Grünewald conveys the cosmic ramifications of the Resurrection of Jesus: the “things of heaven are wed to those of earth and divine to the human” (Exsultet). Moreover, by allowing his faith to inform his craft, Grünewald painted an image that continues to inspire within viewers a firmer faith, a deeper hope, and a more ardent love. As we rejoice in Christ’s Resurrection, may our faith, hope, and love shine forth with the radiant splendor of his glorified Body, reflecting the light of the risen Christ to all the world.
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