Tuesday, April 04, 2023

Sacred Art for Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday

Here are some images for these three days for your mediation. First, Good Friday: The crucifixion of Christ, an illumination by the Master of St. Veronica (German, active about 1395 - 1415).

I chose this for the beautiful flow in the lines of drapery around the forlorn figure of Our Lady. The artist has eliminated any sense of depth, as a more conventional iconographer would, by putting the blue and gold patterned background around the figures. The flatness is deliberate, the lack of three dimensionality in the image evokes heaven which is outside time and space.

Next, we have what in the Byzantine Rite Churches is called the Resurrection Icon, and in the Roman Church might also be referred to as the Harrowing of Hell. This image speaks of Christ’s descent in Hades and so is appropriate for Holy Saturday.

A Western rendering of the same, by the 15th century Italian artist Fra Angelico.

There is a fascinating account of the development of this image in Aidan Hart’s excellent book Festal Icons, which I recommend everyone to read if they can. He describes how the prototype for the iconographic image actually appeared first in Rome in the 8th century (perhaps with great influence from Byzantine Christians who were present there at the time). He suggests that one reason that the prototype of the Resurrection in this form was so late in emerging was that it was developed to reinforce the assertion, against the heresies of monothelitism and monoenergism, which were prevalent at the time, that Christ descended into hell as the single person, in two natures, divine and human. The image shows the Resurrected Christ bodily descending into Hell to draw out those who might be themselves bodily resurrected. It is therefore as much an icon of the resurrection of mankind as it is of Christ. Adam and Eve are present, and typically Christ, the new Adam, reaches down to draw up the old Adam. He has trampled down the doors of Hades and discarded the instruments of his death, such as the nails. In the iconographic version, there might also be present Kings David and Solomon, St John the Baptist, Abel the Just shown as a young man with a shepherd’s crook, Isaiah, and other patriarchs and prophets.

I like the connection between the good shepherd, Abel from the book of Genesis, and Christ, the Good Shepherd, and the shepherds who observe the Nativity as a thread that runs through these Biblical events.

The Fra Angelico version has the devil skulking away stage left!

This image makes the transition into Easter itself. In the words of the Exultet, the hymn sung in the Easter Vigil:

This is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld. Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed.
Illustrated scrolls of the Exultet, such as the Barberini Exultet Roll created in Italy in the 11th century have the Harrowing of Hell to illustrate these lines.

Finally we have a Resurrection image, which developed in the Roman Church from about the 12th century onwards. Here is an English relief carving in alabaster from the 14th century.

Christ emerges from the tomb, trampling on the guards as he does so, again by Fra Angelico.

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