Andrea Bonaiuti, The Resurrection, 1365-8. The Spanish Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.
Happy Easter! Yesterday I referred to last year’s blog on The Devils in Andrea Bonaiuti’s Harrowing of Hell – and then I thought I ought to read it through, just in case there were any embarrassing typos. I’m glad to say that there weren’t, but I was surprised to see how much of yesterday’s material I had already covered. The focus changed, I suppose, from putting the Harrowing of Hell in context, to using the Crucifixion as a focus. I will do the same today, as last year I included this painting of the resurrection when talking about The Devils, and also referred back to it on Easter Day itself, when I talked about Donatello’s relief in San Lorenzo, which still continues to astonish me (see Day 25 – The Resurrection).
We have already explored the frescoes on this wall, starting at the bottom left, outside the walls of Jerusalem, then looking up to Calvary, and back down again to hell on the right, the position of the narrative on the wall effectively mapping, in relative terms, the supposed geographical locations of the settings. But for the resurrection, where should be go? Clearly, from hell, we must look up, and then look higher still than the Crucifixion: up onto the ceiling.
Once more I think that the use of the available space is remarkable – the resurrection, the culmination of the Easter story, and the confirmation of Christ’s triumph over death, is at the very top of the decoration of the chapel, as close to the apex of the ceiling as is possible. We can see the edges of the other images on the quadripartite vaulting, but we’ll talk about them another day.
Three Maries approach the empty tomb from the left, the soldiers still fast asleep in front of it, two of them with shields labelled SPQR (although the inscription on the red shield is hard to see). Two angels sit on the edge of the open sarcophagus, the lid having been tipped off to the back – you can see one corner of it next to the right angel’s wing. Christ is resplendent – and glorious – up above. There is no description in the bible of how Jesus emerged from the tomb, but what we see here is a combination of elements derived from all four gospels. Mark 16:1 says,
And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
So – these are the three woman we see to the left of the image. All four gospels say that the stone covering the tomb had been taken away, and most say it had been rolled. The bible implies that Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb had been cut into a rock like a cave, with a stone rolled in front to close it. However, medieval artists knew that people were buried in sarcophagi, and that was what they were going to paint. By the time Bonaiuti was at work in the 1360s, this image was entirely traditional. Mark 16:5-6 goes on to say,
And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.
The angel who is gesturing, as if to say ‘behold the place where they laid him,’ is indeed on Christ’s right side, even if (1) Jesus is way above them, and (2) there are two ‘men’ in the painting, not just the one referred to by Mark. Matthew 28:3 also mentions only one angel, saying, ‘His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow.‘ However, Luke 24:4 says, ‘two men stood by them in shining garments.’ Bonaiuti draws on all of these accounts – the white clothes, which do indeed shine out against the relatively dull background; the gesture towards ‘the place where they laid him’; and, from Luke, the fact that there are two of them. But that is not the only source for this image. Compare these two details:
On the right is Giotto’s Resurrection from the Scrovegni Chapel, painted some 60 years before Bonaiuti’s version. I made the mistake last week of saying to a group that Bonaiuti had worked in the Scrovegni Chapel: I was thinking of Giusto da Menabuoi, another Florentine artist, and similarly on the edge of being considered obscure. But I can see why I made the mistake. It does look as if Bonaiuti had seen Giotto’s painting, as he combines the same elements. Both images show two angels sitting on the tomb, with the one on our left pointing to the risen Christ, at whose feet kneels Mary Magdalene. The pointing hand, illustrating the phrase ‘behold the place where they laid him’ could equally well, in the Bonaiuti, illustrate the phrase ‘he is risen,’ which is used in all three of the synoptic gospels. Giotto is being remarkably clever, combing the resurrection with the Noli me tangere (more of that later). It is almost as if, for Giotto, the two angels sitting on the tomb are a ‘flashback’, or as if they are talking to the three Maries who are ‘off screen’, as it were – as indeed they are in the detail I have taken from the Bonaiuti.
I have written about the episode traditionally called the Noli me tangere before, when I discussed Galizia Fede’s version (see 104 – Don’t touch!), not to mention Giotto’s painting in the Scrovegni which we see here (109 – Death and Resurrection). The title itself comes from John 20:17, and means ‘touch me not.’ According to John, Mary Magdalene finds the tomb open, and so goes to tell Peter and John, who run there only to find it empty, before heading back home. John 20:11-12 then says,
But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.
It seems clear that, however much Giotto and Bonaiuti drew from the synoptic gospels, everything they needed is here. In John’s account Mary then turns away from the tomb and sees the risen Christ, but does not know it is him. At the end of John 19 we were told that the tomb was located in a garden, which could explain what happens next in John 20:15-17,
Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.
Notice that Mary Magdalene is the first witness of the resurrection. Notice, too, that Jesus instructs her to bear that witness to the apostles. Now, given these two observations, I really don’t understand the objection to having women in the priesthood. In fact, in all of the gospels it is the women who are told to tell the apostles that Christ is risen, although in Matthew, Mark and Luke it is the angels who give this instruction. So, if this ministry was valid, what is the problem now? But I’ll get off my soapbox and move on.
In both of the details, and in Bonaiuti’s image of the resurrected Christ above the tomb, Jesus carries the Cross of Christ Triumphant: the red of his suffering, in the shape of the cross, against the white of his purity. He also, in both appearances in Bonaiuti’s fresco, wears red and white, as do the angels sitting on the tomb: these are the colours of the resurrection. Bonaiuti shows the resurrected Christ carrying the flag in his right hand, with, in his left, a palm leaf, denoting his victory over death. In the Giotto, it is the flag itself which gives us this message. Written in the four white corner sections are the letters ‘VIC’, ‘TOR’, ‘MOR’ and ‘TIS’ – or Victor Mortis, ‘victor over death’. I was asked about this on Thursday, but couldn’t get back to the relevant slide to try and read it: thank you to the person who did!
In Bonaiuti’s telling of the story the resurrection seems effortless (especially when compared to Donatello’s version which I mentioned above). Christ floats in the sky, drapery only slightly ruffled by the breeze, a glorious mandorla of light around him which illuminates, ever so slightly, the trees growing on either side. The hills slope down towards the tomb, leaving Jesus beautifully framed in the middle of the blue sky, the apex of a triangle whose base is formed by the sleeping soldiers and sides by the attendant angels. He is at the very top, a joyous triumph at the end of the long, slow period of reflection that is Lent, and the unimaginable suffering of the Passion. A Happy Easter, indeed!
No more to say for now. I look forward to talking to some of you tomorrow, when we will be Getting Carried Away with Michelangelo at 2pm and 6pm, but after that I will take a break for a while, before my next blog… which, almost inevitably, will be about something from the 18th Century. But before then, I do hope you enjoy the rest of the long weekend, both today and tomorrow. Happy Easter!