“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 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 was it perhaps blown away by a strong wind?) and Christ emerged from the tomb in His glorified Body, because there is no such historical account of that precise moment. There is only what happened afterward. As §647 of 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.” 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 Cor 15:17).
Given that the Resurrection lies “at the very heart of the mystery of faith,” and given that all visual images of the Resurrection themselves arise out of the theological imaginations of the artists who produce them (in collaboration with the grace of God at work within them), one can make the argument that images of the Resurrection of Jesus are, in a particular and unique way, born of the artist’s faith. Extending this argument further, one could also make the 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, rose from the dead on the third day and lives forever in glory.
Of the myriad paintings of the Resurrection created across the centuries and throughout the world, there are few that can rival the beauty of Matthias Grünewald’s “Resurrection” from the famous Isenheim altarpiece. This painting immediately arrests the viewer with its striking use of vibrant color and dramatic contrasts. In this image, the words of the Exultet find a 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 merge behind the head of the risen Christ, and the stars shimmer with an even greater brilliance in the midnight sky. These are the witnesses to the Resurrection. “O truly blessed night, worthy alone to know the time and hour when Christ rose from the underworld!” (Exultet).
Yet the beauty of the scenery is as nothing when compared with the beauty of the risen Christ. Against the black of the “truly blessed Night,” Christ breaks forth from the tomb with the dazzling light of the sun at the dawn of a new creation. His Body radiates with life, a life more real than anything ever experienced on earth before, and His glorified wounds seem to pulsate with light as they testify to the love of the One who bears them—the One who shattered the chains of death in His Death on the Cross. The brilliance of Christ’s face is one with the radiance of the sun and the moon; indeed, in Grünewald’s image, it seems as though Christ’s face is actually the true source of light, and that sun, moon, and stars merely reflect His glory. 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” (Rev 12:10). In the mystery of this smile, Christ, the Incarnate Word, the splendor of the Father, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20), 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, Matthias 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” (Exultet). Moreover, by allowing his faith in the Resurrection to inform his craft as an artist, Grünewald painted an image that continues to inspire within viewers a firmer faith, a deeper hope, and a more ardent love. Gazing upon this image of Christ’s glorified Body cultivates a deeper faith within our hearts that Christ, “coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever” (Exultet). Contemplating the Light of the world as He scatters the darkness of sin and death enables us to sing with the angels, “‘Yes, Christ my hope is arisen!’” (Easter Sequence). And pondering Christ’s once-bloody wounds—the wounds caused by our sin, the wounds by which our sins are forgiven—enkindles within our hearts a greater love for Him who died and rose that we might have a share in the divine life that now thrums through His glorified Body. As we rejoice in the radiant light of the Resurrection, may our faith, hope, and love burn brightly, reflecting the glory of Christ our Light to all the world. Jesus lives! Christ is risen! Alleluia!