Our God, who is totally other, who is always beyond the veil, chose to become visible in the Incarnation of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. As a result, the material world is capable of revealing the face of God. We have but to look with the eyes of faith, allowing the material to lead us to the spiritual.
Hans Memling used the material of oil and pigments to create this spiritual statement about the resurrection of Our Lord. The painting is comprised of three panels. The center panel depicts the moment of the Resurrection, contrasting the quiet, confident power of the Risen Christ with the helpless stupor of the Roman guards. The smaller panel to the right points us to the culmination of the Resurrection in the ascension of Our Lord. The panel to the left shows the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, who represents all those who would take up the cross to follow Jesus.
Memling was born in Germany (c. 1430) and moved to Belgium, where he established his practice and style.
This painting is presented in the form of a triptych. The triptych form originated in early Christian art and became the model for altar paintings from the Middle Ages onward. The modern term “triptych” did not exist when Memling was active. Then, they were known simply as “paintings with doors.” Doors, as you know, can be open or closed. They act as thresholds, boundaries and interconnections not just between their physical components but also between the sacred and the earthly.
It is the very nature of art to reveal and conceal, to open and to close. Every work of art reveals the mind of the artist in material form, but at the same time conceals its meanings in subtle ways, leaving something to the imagination of the viewer. I am reminded of Pablo Picasso’s saying: “A work of art is a lie that helps us realize the truth.” If we apply this to Memling’s “Resurrection,” it would mean that even though these events may not have happened just as he painted them (the lie), his artistry does reinforce our faith (the truth).
It was customary in the past to shut the doors of a triptych during the penitential times of Advent and Lent, their glory not to be seen again until Christmas or Easter, reminding us that there are times when it is good to fast, not just from food or drink, but also from beauty itself.
FATHER VINCENT DE PAUL CROSBY is a monk, priest and artist at St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. To see his work, visit fabricart.net.