General Resurrection from the Bamberg-Eichstätt Psalter by unknown German artist

Unknown German artist

General Resurrection from the Bamberg-Eichstätt Psalter, c.1255, Tempera on vellum, 248 x 175 mm, Stiftsbibliothek, Melk, Cod. 1903 (olim 1833) fol. 109v, Courtesy of the Stiftsbibliothek, Melk

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Putting on Incorruption

Commentary by

What happens to a dead body? Can what is corrupted be made complete? Paul writes to a congregation in Corinth keen to know the answers, and in this miniature from a thirteenth-century German psalter, the artist takes on such questions directly, illuminating 1 Corinthians 15:51–53 in particular.

The anonymous illuminator shows the angels’ trumpet blasts rousing the dead from their tombs, including the central figure, who rises in his shroud (in the lowest register), disentangles himself (middle register), and puts on the garment of salvation (top register). This sequence literalizes the image of ‘putting on’ that Paul uses in relation to the general resurrection, of salvation as a vesture donned anew (1 Corinthians 15:53–54; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:4; Isaiah 61:10). Tertullian, too, uses clothing metaphors in The Resurrection of the Flesh, writing that we will first be ‘reinvested with the flesh’ we lost to dismemberment and/or putrefaction, then we will receive ‘the supervestment of immortality’ (ch. 42).

This first reclothing (‘with the flesh’) is an implication of Paul’s words that our artist is unabashed in pursuing. The two flanking figures at the bottom receive for reattachment their missing limbs that had been devoured by birds and beasts—an arm here, a leg there—and are helped out of their tombs in the top register by fellow saints.

It is this body, these bones, that will rise. All the material parts of self that have decayed, been cut off, swallowed and digested, and/or scattered in death will be reconstituted in the end. In Tertullian’s words, from ‘the maws of beasts, and the crops of birds, and the stomachs of fishes, and time’s own great paunch itself’, people’s bodies will be ‘rehabilitated from corruption to integrity, from a shattered to a solid state, from an empty to a full condition’ (The Resurrection of the Flesh, 4)—much like the dry bones in Ezekiel 37.

The resurrection is not some disembodied event in which our souls alone rise to God. Salvation is of the body as much as it is of the soul, a victory not only over sin but over mortality (permanent cessation) and corruption (decay). We rise whole.

 

References

Tertullian. On the Resurrection of the Flesh. 1885. Trans. by Peter Holmes, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing)