The Resurrection of Christ by Raphael is part of a Lent Devotional Series available for download.
The Background of the Resurrection Painting
Rafaello Sanzio of Urbino: The Resurrection
The Resurrection is the only work of Raphael in the Southern Hemisphere, currently held at the Sao Paulo Museum of Art in Brazil. The work is an oil painting on wood that was at one time believed to be part of a larger altarpiece.
Raphael was born in Urbino Italy in 1483. His life was tragically short as he died at 37 after contracting a fever.
Raphael’s father was a court painter, and Raphael was brought up with the manners and graces of the court. These social skills would serve him well throughout his artistic life. Raphael’s mother died when he was 8, and his father when he was 11. Fortunately, for Raphael his father had remarried after his mother’s death and he and his step-mother were able to keep his father’s workshop running. This providing an income for both of them.
At 17 he recognized that he needed more training and went to work as an assistant to Pietro Perugino. After several years he moved on to Florence. There he absorbed the ideas and techniques from the leading masters there before moving to Rome.
Raphael had the unique ability of being able to study other artists works and absorb their styles. He did this without compromising his own artistic vision, seamlessly combining new ideas with his own approach. Raphael was an extraordinarily even-tempered artist who could work with others, recognize their strengths, and smooth over disagreements. He learned these skills as a young boy at court. It’s said that his workshop functioned in an easy, smooth manner. This contrasted sharply with Michelangelo’s workshop which reflected his volatile, moody temperament.
Raphael spent the last 12 years of his life working in Rome, largely for the Popes, and in competition with Michelangelo. He was painting the Pope’s library at the Vatican at the same time Michelangelo was painting the Sistine ceiling. Due to this the two artists are often compared with arguments over who is the greatest.
It’s an odd discussion to me, they are very different, each with their own strengths. Raphael is considered the greatest artist if we are evaluating according to the ideals of the High Renaissance.
Raphael obeys all of the ‘rules’ with perfection, exhibiting compositional balance, clarity of form, idealized faces, and detailed landscapes. Each of his paintings is characterized by a serene, calm beauty with perfect technical execution. Others would strive for but rarely achieve his standard.
By contrast Michelangelo is the eccentric genius. Brilliant beyond belief, but often lacking grace and restraint by the standards of his day.
In one area both Michelangelo and Raphael are masters and that is as draftsmen. The drawings done by both men are works of art in themselves.
When Raphael worked on a composition, he would lay out drawings of different elements on his floor and then start doing fast drawings. He would then rearrange and draw again, repeating the process until he reached the desired composition. We have hundreds of these drawings. Raphael used this method of working more than his contemporaries, evidently finding this form of mind-mapping a good tool for his inventive imagination.
I find it helpful to consider his method of working when looking at his paintings. When we view a painting we can be tempted to think, somewhat dismissively, well, that’s pretty. We might wonder why the artist included inaccurate details like modern clothing or plants growing where they wouldn’t appear in nature, not recognizing that the artist had a reason for his choices.
Painters are communicating, telling a story, and in the Renaissance that story was often narrative and overlaid with symbolism. Raphael thought out each detail of his painting creating an image meant to communicate spiritual truths in visual form.
This painting of the resurrection, sometimes referred to as the Kinnaird Resurrection, is one of Raphael’s earliest known works. Although early in his career we can see his distinctive style and feeling for proportion is already present.
As we read this painting we will start with the landscape. Mastery of perspective is a hallmark of the Renaissance and here we see that Raphael has made use of aerial perspective. This is when an artist paints the far background in shades of blue to indicate that the area is receding into the distance. In addition, we have the road to the left of the painting narrowing as it winds through the hills, also indicating depth and distance.
A river flows at the base of the hills, in the valley that Raphael has created. Rivers were often a reference to baptism. They were used in resurrection paintings to remind the believer that in baptism they participated in the death and resurrection of Christ.
In the mid-ground we find a crane. Cranes have multiple meanings within Christian iconography. A crane’s long migration pattern makes them a symbol of endurance, and since they reappear in the spring, they signify resurrection. Additionally, and of particular interest in this painting, cranes are noted for their skill at killing snakes.
In the foreground of the painting we have a snake slithering in the grass.
A snake, referencing Satan, is at the foot of the sarcophagus. The snake is meant to signify that Christ’s resurrection has defeated Satan, and he no longer holds any power. The crane’s presence as a master at killing snakes reinforces this idea.
In Genesis, where the story of the fall of man is recorded, we have the account of God cursing the serpent (or Satan) and foretelling that Christ will crush the head of the serpent.
“Cursed are you above all livestock
and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.
15 And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.
The painting is diffused with clear, even light as we see the sun rising over the hill reminding us that the long night is over. We also observe the three women walking up the path. The sunrise and the women walking to the grave are a visual presentation of Mark 16:
“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
The four guards stationed to guard the tomb are spread at the four corners of the sarcophagus each responding to Christ coming forth. The two in the front have fallen down, arms raised as if warding off an attack. The other two guards are standing and gesturing toward Christ.
Four guards, at four corners, each with a hand raised gesturing a different direction signifies that the resurrected
Christ will be drawing together his believers from the four corners of the globe. The foundation of this idea is found in Isaiah 11:12:
And He will lift up a standard for the nations and assemble the banished ones of Israel,
And will gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.
The sarcophagus was understood to signify Christ death on the cross It is centered in the painting with three squares of color marching across the front. Three repetitions like this are a reference to the Trinity being present. This is especially appropriate at this culminating moment of the salvation story.
The lid of the Sarcophagus is opened on a diagonal, demonstrating Raphael’s understanding of foreshortening and his ability to use a variety of perspectives.
Christ is framed in the sky by two angels The angels have a hand raised in blessing, mimicking the hand gesture of Christ. The angels are clothed in rich colored robes. These robes drape their bodies and billow in the wind giving a sense of movement to the image. The ribbons that appear black were probably silver at one point and have tarnished over time.
The angels, messengers of God, were there to proclaim Christ’s birth, and here they are present to proclaim his resurrection. The gospel of Matthew, recording Christ’s words, ties together the imagery we have here of the angels with the four corners/winds.
31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.
Christ is the center of the painting, literally. His feet are the center and Raphael has created a balanced composition moving outward. The four guards circle around him, and the two angels flank either side.
Raphael has painted the triumphant Christ carrying his standard with the red cross blowing out in the wind. His robe is now embroidered with gold along the edges, a device used to designate this image of Christ is after the resurrection. Christ hovers in the air above his tomb. The hovering Christ is to emphasize his divinity. In paintings of Christ’s earthly life there are normally elements that emphasize his humanity. In post crucifixion paintings we see strong evidence that he is divine.
How Christ is portrayed in his resurrection evolved in many ways over the history of art. For centuries Christ was depicted climbing from the tomb. This was to demonstrate his victory over death and showing him emerging from his journey during his time in ‘limbo’. Then the image of the hovering Christ emerged, a precursor to the image of the Baroque artists which is Christ bursting forth from the grave.
The angels’ faces, along with the others in the painting are idealized. Renaissance artists embraced Neoplatonic ideals and were less interested in creating human looking individuals than in showing an idea of loveliness that could be imagined in the mind or held in the heart.
When we speak of Renaissance painters adopting a more realistic or natural form of painting, this would mean realism as compared to the icons or Byzantine art of the past. Their paintings had depth and shape; their figures look real in one sense. However, they are not real in the sense that they look like these people are Raphael’s neighbors, that is a different form of realism.
The goal was to present an ‘ideal’, this was particularly the case in a religious painting with the theme of the resurrection. In light of the resurrection all of creation has been transfigured, made beautiful. This is a theological truth being made visual. The power in this beauty is not meant to be an illusion, or a glossing over of the flaws inherent in man or nature – instead it’s meant to point us to the redeeming work that Christ’s death has wrought.
Art gives shape to these formless ideals and brings beauty to what was the ugliness of the crucifixion. In the light of sunrise of this first Easter morning we see the world resurrected, changed forever. In the truth and glory of the resurrection all of creation is transformed, and that is what Raphael has given us a picture of.
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