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The Resurrection

The three Maries at the open Sepulchre

Jan (ca. 1390-1441) and Hubert Van Eyck (ca. 1370-1426). Museum Boymans-van Beuningen – Rotterdam. 1430.

The Resurrection

Pietro Perugino (1448-1523). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Lyon. Around 1494-1498.


When the Preparation Day was over, the chief priests and the Pharisees went in a body to Pilate and said to him, “Your Excellency, we recall that this impostor said, while he was still alive, “After three days I shall rise again.” Therefore give the order to have the sepulchre kept secure until the third day, for fear his disciples come and steal him away and tell the people, “He has risen from the dead.” This last piece of fraud would be worse than what went before.” Pilate said to them, “You may have your guard; go and make all as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the sepulchre secure, putting seals on the stone ad mounting a guard G38 .Only Matthew tells this part in the Gospels.

According to the Gospel of Mark, when the Sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Mary Salome, brought spices with which to anoint Jesus. And very early in the morning on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. They had been saying to each other, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked they saw that the stone – which was very big – had already been rolled back. On entering the tomb they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right-hand side, and they were struck with amazement. But he said to them, “There is no need to be so amazed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified: he has risen and he is not here. See, there is the place where they laid him. But you must go and tell his disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; that is where you will see him, just as he told you.”” And the women came out and ran away from the tomb because they were frightened out of their wits; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid G38 .

Matthew’s story is quite similar, but he dramatises the visit to the sepulchre. He said that when the women came to the tomb, there was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled away the stone and sat on it. His face was like lightning, his robe white as snow. The guards were so shaken by fear of him that they were like dead men.

Luke’s account is equally similar, but he features two men in brilliant clothes that appeared suddenly at the side of the women. And Luke tells of Mary of Magdala, of Mary the mother of James and John and of Joanna. Nobody seemed to believe the women, but Peter went off to the tomb, running. He bent down and looked in and saw the linen cloths but nothing else; he went back home, amazed at what had happened G38 .

John tells that only Mary of Magdala came first to the tomb and saw that the stone had been rolled away. She ran to Peter and John. John does not name himself, but tells of ‘a disciple whom Christ loved’. He also calls himself the ‘other disciple’. John said that Peter set out with the other disciple to go the tomb. They ran together, but the other disciple, running faster than Peter, reached the tomb first; he bent down and saw the linen cloths lying on the ground, but he did not go in. Simon Peter, following him, also came up, went into the tomb, saw the linen cloths lying on the ground and also the cloth that had been over his head; this was not with the linen cloths, but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple also went in, he saw and he believed < sup> G38 . In John’s story only Mary Magdalene sees two angels somewhat later as she was standing outside the tomb.

The importance of the Resurrection for Christian religion cannot be over-emphasised. One might say that the Christian religion was born from the Resurrection. Therefore Easter is the most important feast of the Christian Catholic liturgy. During Jesus’s passion he was humiliated, abandoned all his powers and was seemingly abandoned also by God the Father. He was ignominiously executed in a way that for the Romans was a deliberate insult intended for political criminals. Before his death Jesus had disciples who followed him but who mostly wanted him to become King of Israel, who did not understand his spiritual messages, but who continued nevertheless to accompany him on account of his miracles. The movement started by Jesus might have stopped at the moment of Crucifixion and all the apostles were in disarray and in panic. But then came the Resurrection. The Resurrection offered the final, definite proof of the divinity of Jesus. It induced in the disciples the courage they needed to start the missionaries. From Easter on they truly became believers and the Church was founded. Artists understood well the importance of the meaning of Easter and made some of their grandest works on the themes of the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ.

Van Eyck

Jan and Hubert Van Eyck were probably born in Eyck on the river Meuse, hence in a town of Northern Belgium now called Maaseik or ‘Oak on the Meuse’, in the province of Limburg. The name of Van Eyck is still quite spread in Belgium. Hubert must have been born around 1365, Jan much later around 1390. Very little is known of Hubert, who worked mostly in Gent and who died there around 1426. Of Jan is known a little more because his name is mentioned in several court archives. He first worked in The Hague of the Northern Netherlands at the court of the count of Holland, Jan van Beieren. In 1425 a civil war broke out in Holland, and probably because of that Jan seems to have joined his brother Hubert in Gent. But Jan was called to the court of the Dukes of Burgundy, to whom belonged the Southern Netherlands and Gent in particular in that period.

The Dukes of Burgundy were among the richest and thus most powerful lords of Europe. They were the masters of Bruges and Gent, the wealthy towns of Flanders. But the Dukes of Burgundy were also engaged in the Hundred Year War, as allies of the English against the Kings of France and that would ultimately lead to the end of their house. Jan worked for Philip II of Burgundy at a moment when the court was at its highest splendour. The Dukes knew the value of a genius like Jan Van Eyck. Jan was more than a painter for he received the title of ‘Valet de Chambre’, one of the main direct servants of the Duke, and he took part in diplomatic missions. Most of what is known of Jan comes from the archives of the Dukes of Burgundy. Jan Van Eyck accompanied diplomatic missions to Spain and Portugal around 1428-1429. In Portugal he made a portrait of Isabella of Portugal, the future wife of the Duke. Around 1430 Jan worked at the court of Lille, also a border town now in France, and then remained in Bruges until his death around 1441. The painting of the ‘Three Maries at the open Sepulchre’ dates from around 1430, so Jan Van Eyck must have painted the largest part, but a tradition of naming the two brothers together for this work has remained.

The painting of the ‘Resurrection’ of the Van Eyck brothers is a very narrative work. The central theme is an open sarcophagus around which are grouped various figures. The large stone slab is turned away, but still on the sarcophagus, so that the tomb is opened. Tomb and slab thus take the form of the cross on which Jesus died. An angel is sitting on the slab of stone with a golden staff in his hand. He represents the authority of God. His wings are magnificent. They are golden in the interior and with peacock colours on the outside. The wings are deployed to show the wonderful colours. Remark the masterpiece of detail in the folds of the white robe of the angel.

Next to the tomb are the three Maries. Mary Magdalene, clothed in her traditional red robe has knelt down. The lady in blue, looking sadly, is Mary the mother of Jesus. Mary Salome, the sister of the Virgin, stands somewhat shyly a little behind. Usually only Mary Magdalene brings a vase of ointment, but in this picture all three Maries have brought balm, so that the scene can also be referenced to the ‘Adoration of the Kings’ where three kings or magi bring presents to the young Jesus. The Resurrection of Christ is indeed a rebirth, the reference is well taken and one of the many puzzles Jan Van Eyck loved to introduce in his pictures. Note the contrast between the pure colours of the three figures. Mary Magdalene is in red, the Virgin Mary in bright blue and Mary Salome in green. These are the basic colours of the rainbow, the covenant between God and humanity. The angel seems mainly to address Mary Magdalene, which is coherent with the Gospel stories since Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene.

Three soldiers are sleeping on the ground. These are the soldiers that Pilate had accepted to guard the tomb. A soldier on the left is entirely lying on the ground, his arms crossed under his head. He wears an oriental pin hat and his cloak is golden yellow, another pure colour. The middle soldier wears an iron cuirass that is shining so much in the morning light that the surrounding landscape is reflected in it. The third soldier on the right is dressed in a green cloak, the same colour as Salome on the other side. He wears a hat that may be more foreign. The three soldiers may represent the three known continents. In scenes of ‘The Adoration of the Kings’, the African or Moorish king stands behind. So does Mary Salome whose cloak is the same colour as that of the soldier on the right. These are conjectures of symbolism. It is always very difficult to know whether or not the Van Eycks deliberately introduced such puzzles. But the tradition to have three figures around Jesus, three like the Trinity, was always very strong. There were three Magi, often three shepherds, three Maries. Christ’s Resurrection took place on the third day after his passion. In the ‘Golden Legend’ is told that the Mount of Olives was also called the Mount of the Three Lights. Because from the west the light from the Temple fell upon it by night, for a fire burned continually on the altar. In the morning it caught the sun’s rays from the east before they reached the city and the hill’s olive trees produces a plentiful supply of oil, which fed light. The Van Eycks were immersed in this symbolism and early fascination of numbers that is also so strongly present in the ‘Golden Legend’.

All soldiers are heavily armed, but the arms have been stylised in a mannered way so as to turn them into symbols more than in real arms. They look terrifying enough, though. Van Eyck may have added touches of embellishment here for the arms have been painted to almost ceremonious devices, an element of style he used also frequently. Thus the soldier on the right wears lances that resemble large arrows. A lance pierced Jesus’s side on the cross and Mary was warned early that seven arrows of sorrow would pierce her hearth. Again one of those plays of symbols of which one cannot know whether the association is voluntary by the painters. Near the cuirass lies a golden or copper helmet with a dragon form. Such symbols make us think of Saint Georges who fought dragons and Jan Van Eyck made another painting in which Georges was figured. Dragons represent evil, Jesus fought evil. Look also at the long fighting axe, the halberd, on the left. Its axe forms are very complex. Shields in strange forms also lie around.

Jan or Hubert Van Eyck painted rock formations to the right and left background. The ‘Resurrection’ did happen on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The hills open to a splendid view of Jerusalem. The two brothers Van Eyck were probably never in Jerusalem, though we cannot be sure of that, especially since we know so little of Hubert Van Eyck. The presentation of the town as seen from the Mount of Olives is fairly accurate though, with the famous round cupola of the mosque of Omar in the middle and also several other details being more or less right, such as a reference to the Golden Gate of JerusalemN1. Either at least one of the Van Eycks had travelled to the Holy Land, which was by no means so difficult as to be improbable, or the brothers used drawings made by other artists brought back from their trips.

The whole picture is painted in meticulous, realistic detail and brilliant colours. The artists wanted to impress the viewers by their display of skills and this expertise of course was the delight of the commissioners. This was what the Van Eyck brothers were famous for. They were superb colourists. They had an enormous sense of detail, a very precise eye and hard patience. Their professional knowledge was considerable to picture in all the details of robes, weapons, cuirass, headdresses, and wings of angels. The Van Eycks were also superb landscape painters as shown in the complex view of Jerusalem.

The painting is well balanced. The composition of the picture is based on the two diagonals. The diagonals are obvious in the picture. They are seen in the lines of the rock formations on left and right. The direction of the soldiers’ lances and the long stone slab of the sarcophagus enhance the right diagonal. The use of diagonals was long known before Caravaggio started to use them as the basis of movement. Here the diagonals are used to separate the frame in four quarters, which are filled separately with volumes. In the left quarter are the three Maries. In the right quarter is a sleeping guard in the green colours and here also is the right rock formation. The two sleeping guards fill the lower quarter. The upper quarter then is filled with the landscape of Jerusalem. The diagonals open magnificently to this landscape. The diagonals finally centre on the white angel, who is thus really the visual centre and the symbol of both Christian spirituality and authority. He really should be the centre and the focus.

The Van Eycks were not too much concerned with perspective of lines. The two reclining sides of the sarcophagus are parallel instead of converging and also the direction and length of the slab is not geometrically right. The Van Eycks knew foreshortening, of course, obvious in the landscape. They were concerned with the tastes of their period and its pictorial style of Gothic elaborate decoration. They worked in the very centre of the lands where Gothic was invented. They saw the most splendid Gothic cathedrals and buildings everywhere. All figures of this painting thus are also stylised with a special attention and love given to the long gowns of the ladies.

The painting is of a static scene, with almost no movement. Only Mary Magdalene has a weak gesture of surprise and the angle holds a hand in warning or greeting. Ornamental elements are used in profusion. There are for instance Hebrew letters painted in gold around the seams of the cloaks of the women and also on the hat of one of the guards (these bear no meaning however N1). The armoury also definitely has a ceremonial character. Compare the details of the cloaks and of the arms, the intricate detail, with the complex patterns of the windows and altars of Gothic cathedrals. Jan Van Eyck was a miniaturist. There are of course direct similarities between miniatures and this way of painting. One can consider these pictures to be large miniatures from which oil painting could further evolve in Flanders.

There is no other special symbolism apparent in the picture except the narration and the decorative representation of a scene of the Gospels. The ‘Three Maries at the open Sepulchre’ is thus an interesting and beautiful picture of the beginning of northern Flemish Primitive art. Especially admirable is the skill of the painters in obtaining the marvellous hues of their colours, which have not lost their splendour over the centuries. The Van Eycks had mastered the use of oils and the technique of applying more or less oil, more or less pigment, and of covering the surfaces with either one thin layer of pure colour or several layers so as to obtain gleaming effects and splendid colour combinations. When several layers were applied, light was changed also by the passage through the underlying layers so that the resulting colour was not always just the shade of he top layer. The Van Eycks had discovered these effects and they used them especially to form shades and shadows on figures and objects.

The painting is a hymn to Christianism. It shows solemn respect for the message and scenes of the Gospels. The Van Eycks were children of their times and uncompromisingly dedicated to their beliefs in the word of God as written in the Gospels.

Pietro Perugino

Pietro Perugino was born between 1445 and 1458 as the son of a very poor man called Cristofano of the village of Castello della Pieve near Perugia G46 . Pietro’s parents were so poor that according to Vasari he was given as an errant-boy to a painter in Perugia. Pietro dreamt of getting out of this state of poverty, so he left for Florence to seek his fortune. Vasari tells Perugino slept in a box in Florence. But gradually the excellence of his works became known and he grew famous.

The young Perugino was a pupil to Andrea Verrochio and gradually he saved enough funds to found a workshop in which numerous famous painters of the next generation learned the arts. Foremost among his students was Raffaello Sanzio called Raphael and even Raphael’s father Giovanni di Santi. Another student of Perugino’s was Pintoricchio who was also a Perugian by origin. The lesser know painters who worked with Perugino were Rocco Zoppo, Montevarchi, Gerino da Pistoia, Baccio and Francesco Ubertino, and a Spaniard called Lo Spagna. There was Andrea Luigi of Assisi called l’Ingegno, Eusebio di Jacopo di Cristofano, Domenico di Paride Alfani, Orazio di Domenico, Giovanni Nicola di Paolo Manni and Giovanni Battista di Bartolommeo as well as others. These are the names mentioned by Giorgio Vasari in the ‘Lives of the Artists’ At this list one wonders about the important industry of painting in Florence and about the influence Pietro Perugino had on the subsequent generation of artists in the town.

Giorgio Vasari tells of Pietro Perugino that ‘Peter was a person of very little religion, and he could never be brought to believe in the immortality of the soul, instead, using words in keeping with his pigheadedness, he obstinately rejected every good argument. He placed all his hope in the gifts of Fortune, and he would have done anything for money’ G46 . Pietro Perugino did get rich, even though he not always had success. Success did not come easy, but Perugino worked hard for it. Much success and rapidity in the end leads sometimes to burnout. It happened to Pietro Perugino. He was in lack of inspiration of scenes and subjects, in lack of imagination and inventiveness. He had to leave Florence after one of his works for the Servite Friars was considered of less quality and its figures the exact remake of others he had painted elsewhere. The good Friars were furious and Pietro was blamed for negligence. Pietro returned to his hometown Perugia then.

Though Perugino was a man of ‘very little religion’ who did not believe in the immortality of the soul, he painted a ‘Resurrection’ in Perugia. He was commissioned so by the Black Friars of Perugia for the church of San Pietro, or Saint Peter, the church of one of their abbeys. We do have the few suggestions of Vasari as to Perugino’s character. He was not an easy man. He worked hard and knew the value of delivering quality. When he had not delivered quality but had painted too rapidly his reputation had suffered. He was not a religious man but could not but have had his doubts and be confronted with the seduction of the message of Christ, as he lived in a time impregnated by religion. He may have been a believer but a man who was disappointed from being born so poor, angry with God and the heavens and thus a cynic. His very ardent desire to escape from poverty did not leave his mind. Yet, Perugino had a dream of an ideal world and it was a very aesthetic image he had in his mind to strive for. It was a clear view of elevated, sublimated vision, of towns architected for the elevation of the spirit, of landscapes that were made to ease and clear the mind. Pietro Perugino may have slept in a box on a street and seen the lowest of Florence, but nowhere in his pictures do we find neither the suffering of his fellow men nor faces of hardship. Perugino had escaped the world of the poor and he painted his dream of the spiritual environment created for meditation. No other painter thus epitomised better the ideal image of the Tuscan Renaissance and its believe in a sparkle of divinity in man.

The ‘Ascension of Christ’ was painted around 1495 to 1498. It must have consisted of fifteen panels. The panels we present are the two central pieces, which are today in the Museum of Lyon in France. The panels arrived in Paris because they were requisitioned by the Revolutionary Commissars of the French Army that had taken Italy. The panels were dispersed over several Museums of the country, according to a new French policy to create local interest in the arts. After the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, France had to return the pictures. Those of the Louvre indeed were given back, but the people of Lyon asked to keep their central panel and the Pope acquiesced as a token of gratitude for the devotion to the Papal cause of the town of Lyon F5 . The Lyon Museum of Fine Arts obtained the second, upper panel through an exchange. Three other panels, among the most beautiful, are in Rouen. The rest is back in Rome in the Vatican, and in the original church of Saint Peter of Perugia.

Pietro Perugino created once more a masterpiece with the altar panels, which all assembled together and throning on the main altar of the Perugian church, must have been one of the magic wonders of Italy. In the lower central panel, Perugino has shown an idealised, elegant, harmonious scene. The resurrected Jesus is depicted in a double oval made of wood or of reeds, decorated with winged heads of angels. On the top of the frame further angels are playing heavenly music on various stringed instruments, a violin, a harp, a lute. Two flying angels support Jesus. Beneath the ascension of Christ stand two groups and figures, and directly underneath is Jesus’s mother Mary. We recognise Paul with a sword and the Book, the image of the defenders of the faith. The Popes had become fighting monarchs in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. So Perugino gave some credentials and his support to the Popes for their more violent actions.

Pietro Perugino was one of the most wonderful colourists of Florentine painting. He had the secret of the greatest variety of pure tones. He used bright red, ultramarine blue, splendid greens, as well as various shades of rose, of purple and of grey, all set in marvellous harmony. Perugino deliberately used shadows in the figures to obtain just the necessary, delicate effect of volume. Look at the wonderful green grass below. Look at the delicate blue mountain range in the far landscape and at the changing blue tones of the serene sky. Perugino’s composition of the figures is also symmetrically balanced and as always his figures are stylised: all persons have the same height and the same volume for instance.

Pietro Perugino and other Florentine artists like Botticelli, Filippo Lippi and also Andrea Mantegna painted their view of an idealised, noble, elegant, courteous society. Pietro Perugino did this as no other. The ideal of an almost passionless and static world of beauty of Pietro Perugino does seem cold and distant. So were the white marble statues of Greek and Roman antiquity that the Renaissance scholars admired so. Perugino exercised his skills in harmony to the utmost in the ‘Ascension of Christ’. His panels must have inspired beyond belief for their splendours in colour and elevation of expression. The picture lacks warm communication of emotion though; it lacks the love of Christ. But as Vasari told, Perugino was concerned with his reputation to offer an impressive painting and he was concerned with money more than with emotions. Perugino built up a picture on symmetries, on idealised forms, on imaginary fabulous architecture, on perfect harmony to generate eternal images. He delivered the ultimate view of an aristocratic world and offered it to be accessible for all.

How and why did a very poor young craftsman come to such imagery? The real answer will always be elusive. We can only give conjectures. Maybe Perugino had this aesthetic image burnt in his mind. This could have been his dream of peace when he slept in a box, the dignity he sought to escape to. Maybe he thought this was the kind of representation his commissioners liked and maybe he wanted to deliver just what they asked. Then this could be the view and aspirations of Florentine Renaissance society. But the reason whereby Perugino just depicted these scenes to please seems doubtful. Pietro Perugino would have been a cheat. One cannot cheat picture after picture with such conviction.

Perugino had a consistent view throughout his life. The only explanation can be that even the poorest can have a spark of eternity in their mind and can and do cherish the most elevated aesthetic vision possible in a human being. They can dream of rationality, of purity, of clear ideals, of dignity and of integrity. They can be of a nobility of character absent in the wealthy and educated. This demands reflection on the social responsibilities of anyone. It also enhances the core of Jesus’s teaching, which addressed specifically the love necessary to bring forward the best talents in everyone and which preached respect and love for all creations. Thus the oeuvre of Pietro Perugino is an example and maybe the finest of the longing for light from the darkness. And it may explain some of the attractiveness of Jesus’s ideals to people.

Perugino defended his views. When late in his life Michelangelo drew the cartons for the ‘Battle of Cascina’ in which the image was a mass of nude men, the soldiers bathing in the river Arno before the battle between the Florentines and the Pisans, Perugino attacked Michelangelo. The two men disputed ardently and the Gonfaloniere Soderini had to intervene. Perugino accused Michelangelo in the courts of justice of slander. Pietro Perugino’s concepts of art were filled with the hopes of transcendence whereas Michelangelo was showing the immanent divinity in man. The two concepts were not to be conciliated but the images remain among the most wonderful the Renaissance has birthed.

Other paintings:

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