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.
Tertullian. On the Resurrection of the Flesh. 1885. Trans. by Peter Holmes, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing)
35 But some one will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. 41There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.
42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. 50I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
51 Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. 54When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55“O death, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?”
56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.