Faith through art: Easter reflections on Christ Risen by Giovanni Bellini
By Norman Farmer
In this altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini (1438-1516) the risen Lord appears precisely as David foretold: “As the light of the morning, when the sun riseth ... , and as the grass springeth out of the earth by rain” (2 Sm 23:4). Standing, as though in a window in the east wall of a small chapel or oratory, and a mere altar-width from a kneeling communicant, the risen Lord seems to stand just outside an imagined window opening onto the blazing dawn of a new day where, fixing his gracious eyes upon the communicant he pronounces the blessing that Moses received from God: “The Lord bless you, and keep you! The Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace” (Nm 6:22-26).
At the altar where this image originally appeared, every day was visibly proclaimed “the day the lord hath made” (Ps 118:24), and was accepted as the antiphon for Easter Morning Prayer urges: “Our Redeemer has risen from the tomb; let us sing a hymn of praise to the Lord our God, alleluia.”
Reflection: The theological aesthetics of praise
And sing Giovanni Bellini did! But instead of words and music, he used the tools of his trade –– tempera, oil and gold on a 23 by 18 inch wood panel, to evoke and express “The Mystery of Faith” — what Jesuit Father Joseph A. Jungman in The Mass of the Roman Rite, ( v. I, p.201) calls “the whole grace-laden sacramentum in which the entire (objective) faith, the whole divine order of salvation is comprised.”
Reflection: The uncreated light of Christ
Already, King David’s prophecy, “As the light of the morning ... ,” points to the profound difference between the created light that God “separated ... from the darkness” on the first day (Gen 1:3-5) and the un-created light about whose mystery Christ speaks when he says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12). Bellini, accordingly, depicts two dawns: one, the blazing dawn of a new day in the eastern sky, and the other –– far brighter –– the luminous, risen and transfigured Christ who appears at the “window” over the altar and just above his Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist reserved in the tabernacle.
Reflection: The shadow upon Christ’s glorified body
This, too, is the “effect” of a mystery. From an invisible source totally opposite the dawn in the eastern sky there comes the dawn of a supernatural light which casts a shadow across Christ’s chest of his upraised and nail-scarred hand. This shadow calls explicit attention to the wound (Jn 19:34) from which came the inexhaustible flow of water and blood, assuring “that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:15).
Reflection: The campanile, the magpie in a leafless tree, the shepherd, the three women
In Bellini’s visible Easter hymn of praise, the effects of un-created light are visible everywhere in the features of the created world. For example, it illumines the western slope of a far distant hill on the eastern horizon! Then, thrusting the holy cross high into the created light of a dawning day, a soaring campanile proclaims this “the day the Lord hath made” (Ps 118:24), while below In the still-darkened middle-distance three women who “remembered his words” (Lk 24:8) hurry to reveal the miracle that renews the fallen world (Lk 24:8-9). Opposite those symbols of spiritual renewal and regeneration, a magpie, a carrion-bird in a dead tree calls to mind the transience of mortal life while in the middle-distance below a faithful shepherd tends his sheep. Finally, basking in the un-created light instead of the light of the world, the two rabbits portend the mystery of regeneration that will gather the created and the natural into the mystery of the uncreated divine.
Reflection: Viewing, veneration and regeneration
Today, Bellini’s glorious “hymn of praise to the Lord our God” is a museum-piece in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Though it no longer illumines the mystery of the Real Presence above an altar, it retains its place in the spiritual memory of the faith as a hymn of praise to the Risen Lord.