LUCA SIGNORELLI: The Resurrection of the Flesh, 1499 – 1502, Fresco, Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto

LUCA SIGNORELLI: The Resurrection of the Flesh, 1499 – 1502, Fresco, Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto

 ‘If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through His Spirit that dwells in you.’ (Romans 8:11)

 The Resurrection of the flesh forms the culmination of the proclamation of the Christian creed. In continuation of his depiction of the Apocalypse, Signorelli enlivens this tenet of faith through the vigour of his brush and the liberty of his genius.

We are in the Chapel of San Brizio nestled within the Duomo at the heart of Orvieto, Italy. As soft light bathes the interior of the transept, we are welcomed into a world beyond time. It is the ‘Last Day’, ‘the End of the World’. Christ Parousia is close at hand. As we gaze upwards, gradually the skies begin to open to an unprecedented golden glow. Heaven seems to descend amidst a million twinkling stars. A host of cherubs are seen dancing to the tunes of grace.

The vagueness of their being brings clarity to the scene. Two mighty Archangels with robust wings cover the upper-half of the canvas. Their fluttering drapery, twirling ribbons render to the ‘rushing wind’ that envelopes them. The attached Crusader flags hover through the atmosphere. The Archangels are seen gazing at the planet while blasting the Last trumpet.

At the sound of Love’s call, the dead awaken from their earthly slumber. They miraculously rise up from the ground, heaving and breathing back to flesh. This is the afterlife they hoped for. They help and embrace each other while beholding the angels in absolute rapture.  

A few skeletons and skulls are seen scattered in the central foreground. Their eyeless sockets are ecstatic while their grinning jaw-bones anticipate the new divine breath. Notice the figures conversing with a group of skeletons. Having arrived at the ‘knowledge and understanding’ at the ‘fullness of time’, they are neither afraid nor hindered by the macabre. In this eternal garden of grace, flesh is far from sin’s face – it is a paradise of purity, the presence of Eternity.

The fresco represents Signorelli’s extraordinary knowledge of anatomy. It bears witness to the Renaissance claim of ‘back to antiquity.’ We are also reminded of the famous ‘Vitruvian Man’, a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci executed in 1490. According to Marcus Vitruvius Pollio ‘Firmitas, Utilitas and Venustas’ meaning ‘Strength, Utility and Beauty’ were the necessary attributes for all buildings. These principles are well-reflected through the proportions of the human body in the painting.

It is here that beauty and holiness meet – where the Spirit breathes. ‘The Word became Flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14) Just as Christ shared in our humanity full of grace and truth, He decreed that we would share in His Glory. The Resurrection of the Flesh by Luca Signorelli hints at this great transition from fragile humanity to eternal Divinity.

Joynel Fernandes- Ast. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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