Behold an Earthquake! : The resonating Resurrection by Andrea Mantegna

Behold an Earthquake! : The resonating Resurrection by Andrea Mantegna

What is Christian faith without an empty tomb? The Resurrection, the foundation of the creed, has featured popularly in Art.  One such resonating depiction is that by the Italian painter, Andrea Mantegna.  An art revolutionary, he was born in the Republic of Venice in 1431 to a carpenter. However this art prodigy was recognized by Francesco Squarcione, a Paduan painter who adopted him. He worked in Padua, Verona and Venice before moving to Mantua in 1460, where he spent the rest of his life.

‘The Resurrection’ is a part of a triptych executed in oil paint for the monastery of San Zeno in Verona. It gained the admiration of Napoleon the Great. Following his victory over Verona in 1797, Mantegna’s masterpiece was taken as booty to France. Following his defeat in 1815, the three main panels were returned back. Nevertheless, ‘The Resurrect ion’ which forms a part of the lower predella continues to reside at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in France.

( the picture is situated on the bottom right hand side; unfortunately cut off in the image)

With unison of heart and mind, Mantegna’s painting recalls the Gospel of Matthew, chap 28: 2-4.‘And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat upon it. His appearance was like lighting and his raiment white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.’

Mantegna brings life to these words with his brush. The figures occupy a ‘real’ space created with an illusion of linear perspective which brings the narrative to our space. The tremor ridden floor is used to create two artistic fields: the gigantic rugged tomb and its immediate environs.

Our gaze is instantaneously coveted by the all-glorified resurrected Christ as he steps forth from the marble sarcophagus triumphantly. While his left hand holds a long standard crowned by a detailed metallic cross, his right hand is raised in benediction. A cherubim aureole emanates from his sides. While the red cherubs signify his passion and death, those in white signify his resurrection and glory. The illuminating rays accentuate the majestic scene.

How profound was that scene to the waking soldiers! And Mantegna captures it vehemently! His figures voice their reactions. The one on our extreme left almost breaks into an apprehensive sprint. The soldiers next to him are surprised and sorry. The guard on our extreme right can’t believe his eyes and blinks in bewilderment. The one next to him holds his head in regret. But the best exemplified are the guards in front of the sarcophagus. One is speechless and aghast. Stirred by the commotion, the other guard wakes expressing, ‘What on earth is happening?’ He has yet to witness the Risen Lord.

Mantegna was in love with all things classical. Take a peek at the details of the soldiers armour, the folds of their garment, the designs on the shields, the sensitiveness of the expressions, the beauty of the colours, the fabrication of the cave, the sophistication of the space, the realism in the rendering, the vividness in form and the careful use of light. It creates a visually powerful scene. The atmospheric perspective of the tawny background expands the horizons.

The beauty of the painting is further enhanced by symbols. Plants crack the rocky grave and ascent to life symbolizing Easter (old English for the goddess of spring). The cherry blossoms and the ivy signify eternal life and paradise. To the right in profile lies a barren stump from which grows forth a laurel signifying the victory of Christ over death. The acanthus and the sunflower on the front panel of the sarcophagus illustrate glory and everlasting life. If you are a keen eyed cloud spotter, you will notice that the clouds to our left embody a cherub representing heaven.

The soldiers were obviously petrified. The one they seized, bound, scourged, mocked, struck, blind folded, spat upon, stripped, nailed and crucified was right there, Resurrected! It is intriguing how the soldiers armoured with helmets and greaves, swords and daggers, spears and shields fear Him who is armoured by affection and mercy. They were confounded and were alarmed by the supposed revenge. Little did they realise that God’s revenge is love. The earth that dawn quaked at this unconditional love!

Joynel Fernandes

Asst. Director – Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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