In 1 Corinthians 15:35, Paul launches into the heart of his dispute with the church at Corinth: the means and meaning of a resurrection body.
He concedes it is a mystery, yet he attempts to unpack it a little, using a seed metaphor to stress both continuity and change: the selfsame matter that is buried is what flowers forth from the ground, though in a more fully developed, more glorious form. That is, the resurrection body is new in quality but not substance; it arises out of what was sown (vv.36–38).
Foliated patterns show up frequently in early Christian art, especially on funerary objects, like the sarcophagus of Archbishop Theodore of Ravenna. Drawn from Graeco-Roman decoration, acanthus and vine motifs took on new meaning for Christians, who often used them to express the promise of resurrection. Dead flesh, whether contained in stone or dissolved into the earth, may be thought of as inanimate, but in the Christian understanding, it is pregnant with potential, a site of fertility—and it is Christ who empowers the growth. Christ is the ‘firstfruits’, Paul says in verse 20, of a cosmic harvest, of the new creation. He has risen, as we shall rise.
Christian orthodoxy has always insisted on the self as a psychosomatic unity—body and soul. Resurrection, therefore, must include both, for, as Tertullian asserts, ‘If God raises not men entire, he raises not the dead’ (The Resurrection of the Flesh, 57). While early Christian art tended to express the hope of future resurrection emblematically or allegorically, medieval art took a more direct and literal approach, showing whole persons, embodied and ensouled, rising from their graves to be with God on the last day. To emphasize the triumph of integrity over partition, the scene sometimes includes animals regurgitating the body parts of the rising dead that they had eaten. Resurrection had to include reassemblage.
Originating in the post-iconoclastic East and the Carolingian–Ottonian West, this iconographic motif found its fullest development in Greece, the Balkans, and Russia, though a fine example is found in the Bamberg-Eichstätt Psalter held at Melk Abbey. Such images reflect the belief among Christians that even if swallowed, digested, made into alien flesh, excreted, or rotted, their body parts were still theirs and would one day be gathered up by God and reunited with their frames.
Beginning in the twelfth century, the general resurrection was increasingly subordinated to broader narrative themes, such as the Crucifixion or the Last Judgement, with Christ taking centre stage. Images from the latter grouping usually focus not on disentombment but on the division of the saved and the damned. Within such a schema, Renaissance artists tended to stress the ethereal splendour of the glorified body or the natural beauty of regenerated flesh.
Paul is sometimes misread as rejecting a bodily resurrection, but nothing could be further from the truth. As the Bamberg-Eichstätt Psalter delights in showing us, we will not divest ourselves of our humanity at the last trump; we will shed only our grave clothes, to be clothed instead by heavenly glory. So when Paul says ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’ (v.50), he is referring to our present, ordinary, bound-to-rot bodies—the ‘natural body’ of verse 44. But those bodies will be transformed into incorruptible ones, ones that cannot suffer or die or decompose and that are animated, through and through, by the Creator’s own Spirit—a ‘spiritual body’. Paul clearly modelled his ideas on the resurrection of the saints after the resurrection of Christ, who rose in a body that was the one he lived and died in (as indicated by the empty tomb) and yet was transfigured.
The terrestrial and celestial are conflated in The Resurrection, Cookham, a modern painting by Stanley Spencer that sets the event in an English churchyard. Here Spencer’s family, friends, and neighbours wake from their tombs, bearing not only the glory of the first Adam, ‘the man of dust’, but now too the glory of the second, ‘the man of heaven’ (v.49), Christ—for they are now imperishable, immortal!
Such grand endowments, and yet the people assume them unceremoniously; if there’s any fanfare, it occurs outside the picture. For those who, Spirit-empowered, are ‘always abounding in the work of the Lord’ (v.58), heaven does not so much shock as delight—and can already be experienced in the present. For Spencer, the fruits of resurrection are tasted whenever we are awakened to the glory and grace of God that surrounds us.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1995. The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336 (New York: Columbia University Press)
Tertullian. On the Resurrection of the Flesh. 1885. Trans. by Peter Holmes, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing)