Piero della Francesca, “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ,” 1463
Piero della Francesca’s 15th-century fresco of The Resurrection of Jesus Christ comes from an unexpected place. Rather than a church or a shrine, it adorned the wall of the civic meeting hall of the Tuscan town of Sansepolcro. On this Easter Sunday, this triumphant image of Christ emerging from the tomb compels us to consider what his victory means not only for the Church but for our whole world.
The Gospel tells us what it was like for Mary Magdalene and the other disciples to discover the empty tomb, and to allow their sorrow to cautiously evolve into possibility and then passionate faith. The Resurrection here does not lead us down that gradual path, but rather captures the moment when Christ emerges triumphant from his tomb. The image of Christ is strong in victory and ready for action as one foot rests on top of his tomb, propelling him forward. His gaze is direct, piercing: an expression of the supernatural order, of ultimate sovereignty. His halo is like a crown, his flag of triumph is like a scepter; Christ transitions here not only from death to life, but from the Rabbi who walked the roads of Galilee to the Risen Lord who reigns in majesty. The Easter Sequence reverberates through the image: “Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous: The Prince of life, who died, reigns immortal.”
The composition of the scene is one of contrasts juxtaposed to convey transition. Christ’s strong and steady form emerging from the tomb is in contrast to the limp but limber bodies of the four guards sleeping in front of it. In particular contrast are the eyes—closed eyes and covered faces below as opposed to the direct and piercing gaze of the Lord above. The figures are arranged in a triangular formation, and it is as if Christ, at the apex of the group, gathers into himself all of our human laxity, blindness, and apathy, and transforms it into an active, focused presence toward the fullness of life. The trees behind him reinforce this theme, as the dry and dead trees on the left transform into full foliage on the right in the coming light of dawn.
In Sansepolcro, this fresco was in the town hall, announcing its Alleluia not in the church but in the public sphere. In this Easter season, Christ is risen indeed in our churches, but also in our homes, communities, and workplaces. All of creation is illuminated by the new dawn brightening behind the Risen Lord. Christ our hope has arisen—bringing the triumph of life into all the contexts in which we live it.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, director of ministerial formation at Saint John's University School of Theology and Seminary.
In the Year in Our Church section of Finding God, Grade 6, young people learn about and reflect on Easter as the most joyful time of the year and think of ways to be witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ to their family and parish. In this activity, the catechist distributes hymnals for children to locate Easter hymns. Choose a hymn and lead a discussion about the lyrics and their meaning. Next, invite young people to choose different songs and discuss in small groups the lyrics and meaning of them. After a period of time for small group preparation, invite groups to explain their hymns to the larger group and lead a discussion. If groups are comfortable, have them sing their song.