Faith through Art: Altarpiece remembers aspects of Holy Saturday
By Norman Farmer
The Paschal Way of the Light (or Via Lucis) has become an increasingly popular post-Easter religious practice. Consisting of fourteen stations, like the Way of the Cross which anticipates the Triduum, this devotion reflects upon Christ’s Resurrection to Pentecost when Jesus sends the Spirit promised by God to his disciples (www.catholicnewsagency.com/resources/liturgy/easter-season).
A little-known 14th century masterpiece dwells upon the fulfillment of ancient prophecy as Jesus sleeps among the dead on Holy Saturday, upon the victory of the cross over the grave, and upon the transformational consequences of his resurrection. It is the altarpiece, painted around 1390, for the tiny church of San Romolo situated above Pratovecchio (AZ), Italy, in the Casentino Valley of Tuscany. The artist, who believed this inscription more important than his signature, remains unknown: “Persons in a state of grace who contemplate this image, especially the “arma Christi” (or battle trophies of Christ), are to receive three years’ indulgence.” Indeed, many things are to be pondered in this profusely detailed image.
An open tomb defines the foreground of the painting, crowding the picture-plane so closely that it would appear to be an extension of the altar-table. The “end,” the oblivion of the grave, is thus the first subject to consider, while in the background the cross seems at first glance to be death’s accomplice. Especially ominous are the images of the despicable acts and the cruel implements used by the enemies of Christ to betray, humiliate, disfigure, diminish, pierce, and kill him. They swarm around and upon the cross, a hideous sequence of images of disembodied robotic hands and talking heads –– the Caiphas and Annas plot; Judas betrays with a kiss; and the crowing cock.
Then, a curious thing! Though dead, Christ stands upright in the tomb into which he is about to disappear – not merely from sight, but from the life he shared with humanity. By its oddity, though, the image recalls ancient prophecy that no bone in the spotless body of the true sacrificial victim is to be broken (Ex 12:46; Nm 9:12; Ps 34:21; Jn 19:31-37). And in the peculiar “seeming” of this standing-and-dead man the artist restates the Luke’s vision of the Scroll and the sacrificial “Lamb that seemed to have been slain” (Rev 5:6), pointing thereby to the solemn mystery about to unfold within that tomb. Meantime, like a great tree, the cross, grows and spreads its branches as if from the erect and entombed body of Jesus which for the day is firmly rooted –– in death.
The knots and texture associate that tree with “the Lebanon cedar [that] shall put forth his shoots ... like the olive tree and his fragrance...“ (Hos 14:2-10). As prophesied by Ezekiel, this is the “crest of the cedar.”
“Plant[ed] on a high a lofty mountain,” it will “put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar … And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the Lord, bring low the high tree, lift high the lowly tree, wither up the green tree, and make the withered tree bloom” (Ez 18:22-24). And bloom it does with the blossoms of grace known as the “arma christi.” For as our viewpoint shifts from the tomb to the Cross, we are seeing in them trophies of Christ’s triumph over sin and death, the fruits of the Cross victorious that rises out of his descent into hell to overshadow the first family of the nascent church (Jn 19:26-27): his Holy Mother and the disciple “whom he loved” (Jn 13:23) alongside two of its original martyrs: Saints Longinus (at right) and Bishop Romolo of Fiesole.
At the foot of the cross, the Roman centurian became the sole agent of ancient prophecy when, with a single spear-thrust, he proved Jesus dead on the cross, released the torrent of water and blood from his side that gave birth to the church (Ambrose, PL 15.1585), prevented the breaking of Jesus’ legs, became the first gentile to discern and declare that “Truly this man was the son of God” (Mk 15:39) and became the first Christian convert and martyr when the Romans killed him for his defection. Romolo of Fiesole, the patron of this church, was converted and baptized by Peter, became bishop of Fiesole and another early martyr when his fellow Romans killed him for his efforts to convert them.
The definitive key to this amazing, transfixing and sometimes puzzling altarpiece is the object below the arm of the cross and visible between John and Longinus. Close scrutiny shows it to be the banner of the Resurrection, a red cross on a white field. Furled and shrouded, it waits among the “armi Christi” for the moment of the Resurrection when Christ will step from the tomb and hold that banner high at the prophesied moment when the horrific weapons of evil become the forever trophies of his glorious victory over sin and death and the first-fruits of that tree upon which he had been hung.