Mark Harden's Artchive Piero della Francesca
Mural in fresco and tempera
225 x 200 cm
Museo Civico, Sansepolcro

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For information regarding possible commercial licensing of this image from Scala Group, Art Resource or Bridgeman Art Library, click here. Text from Arthur Danto, Embodied Meanings.

Writing in his Lectures on Fine Art on the portrayal of Jesus in the Christian visual tradition, Hegel is doubtful whether it lies within the capacity of painting to represent those awesome moments in which the specifically divine aspects of Christ are revealed in the resurrection, the transfiguration, or the ascension. Painting has no difficulty in showing Christ in his human or earthly aspects, as a teacher, a preacher, a leader, a man of anger and forgiveness, and of course as a man capable of terrible suffering. But where "his Divinity should break out from his human personality," Hegel writes, "painting comes up against new difficulties." It is easy enough to say, in words, that Christ was at once man and god, but to show this complex metaphysical nature in a way that is visually convincing tested the powers of a painterly tradition that defined its achievement in naturalistic terms. "The means at the disposal of painting," the philosopher says, "the human figure and its color, the flashing glance of the eye, are insufficient."

Piero della Francesca's Resurrection (circa 1463), in the Palazzo Communale of Borgo, Sansepolcro in Tuscany, presents the nonnatural occurrence of a human being who has come back to life, an event without which the entire Christian faith, according to St. Paul, must collapse: "If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain." As a painting, it overcomes Hegel's difficulties so magnificently as to emblematize the miracles to which visual art may aspire. Piero has shown us what it must have felt like to be the subject of a resurrection, and expressed it in a way that each of us, whatever our religious convictions, can understand. Christ recognizes that something undeniable has taken place, which nonetheless strains the limits of credibility. He is shown at an instant of stunned triumph. His is the expression of someone who accepts, and is even awed by, what he has no way of doubting but cannot altogether believe. To be sure, he had predicted that it would happen, and his followers were enough convinced of its inevitability that the Romans were obliged to take precautions, sealing the tomb and stationing soldiers there to prevent the body's being stolen and resurrection falsely claimed. The guard at the extreme right seems to have awakened, even to have seen the miracle that he must have interpreted as a dream, for such is the torpor of his body that he seems to be sinking back into sleep, having raised himself on one arm. Only Christ is awake, but in a sense of "awake" that contrasts not so much with "asleep" as with "dead." He is alive in a new dawn, and in a barely imaginable way.

Christ stands erect, with one foot still in his sarcophagus and the other placed almost arrogantly on its edge. He plants the banner of Christianity on the ground outside his tomb, occupied by the sleeping Roman guards. He stands like a great discoverer, about to climb out of his boat onto a new land that he will claim in the name of his sovereign. Except that he is the sovereign of this still-somnolent world, which stretches out to include us, as viewers of the painting and witnesses to the miracle. Unlike the soldiers', our eyes are open, and there can be no question of the point from which we are intended to observe. The sarcophagus is presented absolutely head on: we do not see it from above or from below. Piero was a master of the art of perspective and wrote a standard treatise on its geometry. The chronicler Giorgio Vasari describes a drawn vase "which is treated in such a manner that it can be seen before, behind, and at the sides, while the base and mouth are equally visible; without doubt a most astonishing thing." We have to be at Christ's feet to see the tomb as we do. Christ looks out, with unflinching eyes, over our heads, toward a horizon he alone can see of the world in which he is about to set his foot.

There was never a face like this in the art of the ancients, nor was there a body such as this, inasmuch as the experience Piero was called upon to depict was not available to the ancient world's psychology. The feeling and the idea are both of the new era. Think, for comparison. of the archaic torso of Apollo that the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke describes in a sonnet as being radiant with erotic power, sensuousness. and animal vitality: "We did not know the legendary head, / In which the eyeballs ripened." Little matter: the god gazes at us from every point of his body's surface. And we see ourselves through that distributed eye as pale, limited creatures. Similarly, we see our own vulnerability reflected in the strength of Christ's body. Were Christ's head lost through some cultural tragedy - evidently Piero's fresco, somewhat abraded, was plastered over in the eighteenth century - we could almost imagine being able to reconstruct it from the posture alone, the figure poised at the edge of the transcended tomb. And it is interesting to ponder the difference between the archaic sculpture and the painting from this perspective. Each envelops the viewer in a mood that unites him with the subject. But a sculpture could not give us the chill, still, silvery feeling of the dawn. Not sunrise, as it were, but daybreak. Christ is the sun, in his dawn colored robe, under his halo. How are we to read the fact that the clouds seem lighted from above though the literal sun has not yet broken the horizon? The light must be the light of God, bathing the whole world in luminosity.

Medieval moral philosophers distinguished the natural virtues, listed by Plato and Aristotle as wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage, from the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity. We can work at acquiring and strengthening the natural virtues, but faith, hope, and charity are only given by grace. Infused with grace, the other virtues are transformed. The courage of the warrior is different from the fortitude of the martyr, or of the Virgin who accepts the burden of the Lord as flesh, destined to die before her. All of this had to be rendered visually by the artists of the Christian West, and the glory of their art lies in the ways they invented for infusing natural appearances with divine presences, and yet leaving the visual world intact. No one can look at Piero's image without feeling that there is something momentous transpiring through its uncanny calm.

Piero's contemporaries, according to Vasari, held the Resurrection to be the greatest of that great master's work in his native city "Nay," Vasari adds, "of all that he performed." "The mood felt by the painter and instilled into our souls," wrote the English scholar John Addington Symonds, "makes this by far the grandest, most poetic, and most awe-inspiring picture of the resurrection." Nay, one wants to say, in the manner of Vasari, the grandest, most poetic, most awe-inspiring painting of all. Like its subject, the work breaks through limits felt to be absolute. Like its subject, the faithful stand at once incredulous and certain. It is possible to imagine that there is in the appreciation of works of art a distinction that corresponds to that between the natural and the theological virtues. We outside the circle of faith can know the relationship in which those inside it can stand to such a painting as the Resurrection without being able to stand in that relationship ourselves.