Director and co-writer Phil Grabsky usually bring us exhibitions by a painter or a show. Still, in Easter in art, Dozens of the world’s greatest artists who have worked in Christian nations throughout history are represented. In an unusual but revealing format, dozens of beautiful illustrations remind us of the Easter story written in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
This is only fitting as one of the most critical aspects of understanding Passion paintings is the relationship between word and image. Artists have given “the word” their visual manifestation for centuries, and your commissions should do just that for the benefit of the clergy, wealthy donors, and the illiterate masses.
As one of the film’s three experts, Dr. David Gariff of the National Gallery of Washington, reports that Renaissance painters, in particular, began to create fresco cycles on the walls of religious institutions, one of the most famous being that of Giotto (1303-1305). in the Scroyegni Chapel in Padua. The stories are presented the way a film editor would set up a film, and the analogy is apt as that was the ultimate form of communication of the time.
Giotto’s act was challenging to follow. However, almost two hundred years later, Leonardo da Vinci painted a large fresco of it, The Last Supper, Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery in Milan refectory. Its location was chosen to remind the monks of Christ’s sacrifice and his disciples as they sat down for Supper.
Grabsky’s format is clever, too, because, like the film’s three experts, Dr. Gariff, Times art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston, and Dr. Jennifer Sliwka of Kings College, London, points out that Easter is the most important festival in Christianity, and it is the most illustrated story in western history. The story has themes the layperson can relate to, such as love, pain, suffering, faith, betrayal, and hope.
From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, art was predominantly religious. So this isn’t just an Easter story. It’s an art store. The story begins with Christ’s activities that earned him the name of King of the Jews and a following that irritated the Jewish establishment (if the Gospels are to be believed). The main event was the temple cleansing, illustrated by El Greco in 1570. Correcting the scribes and chief priests, Jesus points out: “It is not written” that the temple “is to be named a house of prayer, but you have one Made a den of thieves out of it.” Then he starts smashing things and chasing people.
From then on, the Parsis, high priests, and councilors want revenge. They are portrayed as rebellious monsters until governor Pontius Pilate, who keeps declaring that this man has committed no crime, has no choice but to crucify their nemesis.
The Last Supper is a Passover seder, and many artists have drawn on the subject, including the nun Plautilla Nelli, the first woman to paint the subject 450 years ago and the only woman on the list. Andy Warhol’s The last supperWritten at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Caravaggio’s drama is missing, but to advance the story Dinner at Emmaus (1601) and the Master of Capenberg (1525-1530) Christ before Emmaus with his men in light-colored tights, makes up for it.
To bring Jesus to justice, he must have committed a crime (he was framed, Putin-style, for inciting the mob) and must be identified—that is, betrayed. Giotto has a beautiful fresco of Judas’ betrayal. Other masterpieces are on display that focuses on Judas’ kiss and Jesus’ admirable warning to his vengeful disciples: “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will pass the sword perish.”
Dr. Gariff points out that it was imperative that Jesus, who lived as a man, died as a man. As a result, about two dozen masterpieces vividly depict his betrayal, taunt, torture, and death. The idea is that the church identifies with Jesus and that we humans fit naturally into the story. The best painters have found techniques to make their art speak directly to our human condition and frailty.
The gory part of the story is the most effective and popular. Cash register Agnus Dei (1635-40) by Francesco de Zurbaran and Anthony van Dyck and Caravaggio’s (1602) The Taking of Christ. Better still, Jaume Huget (1455), Caravaggio (1607-10), and Diego Velázquez (1628) spare us nothing in their Flagellation of Christ, while Guido Reni (1639-40), Peter Paul Rubens (1612) and Hieronymus Bosch (1510) show the cruel crown of thorns and the mocked Christ.
The narrative reminds us that if the outcome were not so terrible and tragic, there was an almost comical game of passing the buck as the Parsis and others dragged Jesus to various authorities hoping to dump him. The first station was the high priest Caiaphas (Christ before Caiaphas by Giotto and also by the master of Guillaume Lamberg from 1480-90), who sent him to the governor Pontius Pilate (The Master of Beighem Altarpiece, 1520-1540, and Rembrandt’s magnificent print of 1636). Jesus was a soccer ball passed from Pilate to Herod (Christ before Herod by Antonio Ronzen 1517-20) and back to an aggravated Pilate (Jacobo Tintoretto (1566) and Albrecht Dürer (1512) washing his hands in Jesus’ blood.
Images of the Crucifixion and Crucifixion (Rembrandt’s descent from the cross receives an exciting analysis from Mrs. Campbell-Johnston) outnumber images of the resurrection, where Easter comes into play. The story is particularly triumphant regarding the resurrection, as Christ eludes the centurions guarding the tomb and proves the mocking priests wrong when they call Jesus’ prophecy of the ascension from the grave a fraud.
And there is no shortage of dramatic paintings of the Entombment, like Tintoretto’s (1550-1560) and Rogier van der Weyden’s (1460-64). Michelangelo’s early unfinished Entombment is innovative for the way the sacred figures hold the body upright as if presenting Christ to the viewer. His feet were not touching the ground as if floating, and his perfect, muscular body could await his resurrection three days later.
The film focuses on medieval and Renaissance depictions, although a Delacroix and a Manet represent the 19th century. My only complaint is the omission of Graham Sutherland’s powerful 1961 No I Tangier at Chichester Cathedral.
Insightful and beautifully presented, we see Easter being revived through centuries of masterpieces.