The Resurrection of the Flesh
Above is a detail from The Resurrection of the Flesh (fresco, 1499-1502), painted by Luca Signorelli (c.1445-1524) to adorn the Chapel of San Brizio, located in the main cathedral in the town of Orvieto in northern Italy. Joe and I visited Orvieto in 2002, but we didn’t go inside the cathedral. It may have been closed or we may just have had a case of “duomo overload.” In any event, I took lots of photos of the cathedral’s exterior. We arrived in the town as late afternoon turned to dusk, and the cathedral was bathed in the soft pinks and golds of the setting Umbrian sun.
Signorelli’s depiction of the resurrection is interesting for several reasons. First of all, there appear to be only two women in a sea of men. For the most part, the figures are all nude or semi-nude and robust-looking. Some appear to marvel at their newly raised flesh. Perhaps Signorelli preferred the male to the female nude. Perhaps he was making a statement about the ratio of men to women in Heaven.
Some of the figures are mere skeletons, as though they have just emerged from their graves and are still awaiting their resurrection bodies. The figure on the right is conversing with a group of skeletons and has clearly said something amusing, because the skeletons appear to be chuckling at his wit. Either that or he has a very small penis. In any event, many art historians have alluded to Signorelli’s playfulness in The Resurrection.
I like this fresco for its beauty and its wit, though I myself do not subscribe to the doctrine of Christ’s bodily resurrection or the bodily resurrection of the dead. Many of the earliest Christian writings (the earliest versions of the Gospel of Mark, Q or “the Synoptic Sayings Source,” and many of the non-canonical Gospel writings) do not include the resurrection story. Even Paul, whom many claim to be the most ardent apologist for the doctrine of Christ’s resurrection on the third day, is hardly unequivocal in his treatment of the resurrection.
In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul writes about how after Christ died and was buried, he appeared to
Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (1 Corinthians 15:5-8)
Now the word that Paul used, which is translated as “appeared,” is ώφθη, the aorist passive of the Greek word οράω meaning “to see.” Many scholars recognize that this verb conveys both a literal and a figurative meaning—seeing with the eyes or seeing with the mind. In other words, the word ώφθη could be used to convey either a bodily appearance or a mental apparition. In this passage, it could denote a vision of some kind.
Paul includes himself in the list of those to whom Christ “appeared”/ ώφθη. Acts 9, however, describes the manner in which Christ appeared to Paul, and it was not a bodily appearance. Ultimately, Paul’s understanding of the resurrection is unclear. He speaks of Christ being raised, but also seems to talk about Christ’s appearances as spiritual, rather than bodily events. In other words, if Paul is really trying to make a point in his letter to the Corinthians about the bodily presence of Jesus among his disciples following his death, why include his own experience on the road to Damascus, in which Jesus was clearly not present bodily, but spiritually?
Many scholars have argued that there was no consensus among the different early Christian communities about the resurrection (or whether there was a resurrection at all). It seems that the early Church was much more complex, and the diversity of beliefs more richly varied than previously thought.
As far as I’m concerned, Christ’s resurrection is best understood figuratively, not literally. For example, I believe in resurrecting the Historical Jesus buried by Church myth and dogma for millennia. Moreover, when I say Χριστός Ανέστη (Hrist-OS A-NES-ti) or “Christ is Risen” with my fellow Greeks, I say it because Christ is risen whenever the oppressed are liberated, whenever the outsider and the marginalized are welcomed, whenever the rights of the poor are championed, whenever the exploited find justice, whenever love and compassion triumph over greed, and whenever peace is made. In this world, these things don’t happen very often, but whenever they do, Christ is risen. Christ is risen whenever the spirit of his ministry to the poor, the oppressed, the sick, and the marginalized is brought to life in our words, our deeds, our hands, and our bodies.
To all my fellow Greeks,