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Unknown artist [Fratelli Bucciolini Company]

Photoceramic portrait of Pietro Testi, c.1888, Enamel pigments on porcelain, 12 x 8 cm [approx.], Cimitero delle Porte Sante, Florence, Photo: Courtesy of the author

Veit Thiem

Epitaph of the Lewe Family, with the Resurrection of the Youth at Naim (Epitaph der Familie Lewe mit der Erweckung des Jünglings zu Naim), 1546, Oil on wood, 122 x 333 cm, University of Leipzig Art Collection, 1913:263, © University of Leipzig, Kustodie; Photo: Jens Friedrich

Carlo Naya

Archival photograph of Palma il Vecchio's Jesus and the Widow of Nain, c.1890, Albumen print mounted on cardboard, 20.3 x 25.9 cm, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut, Fotothek, Inv. Nr. 7587, Photo: Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut; Photographer: Stefano Fancelli

Life and Death Situations

Comparative Commentary by

Among the many miracles that Christ worked in the New Testament, the resurrections are certainly the most spectacular. Be it the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1–44), the raising of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:21–43; Matthew 9:18–26; Luke 8:40–56) or, as in this case, the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, these episodes function as a prefiguration of Christ’s own resurrection three days after his crucifixion and burial. At the same time, they illustrate the power of Christ as a destroyer of death.

But what sets this resurrection episode apart from the others—where Christ was actively approached and asked to intervene by the people—is the unconditioned intervention of Christ. Without being asked he came closer, touched the bier, and saved the boy. Similar to the raising of the son of the widow of Zarephath through the prophet Elijah in the Old Testament (1 Kings 17:7–16), active faith is not made a condition for the miracle. God acts to save through the unlooked-for touch of a human body.

Given the central significance of eternal life and salvation in the Scriptures, it comes as no surprise that these notions endured the centuries and travelled through time and space. In the early modern age depictions of resurrections gave visual evidence to these religious beliefs and were frequently commissioned by patrons. These works of art had numerous functions. Put in private chapels or parochial churches, often in spatial proximity to their actual tombs, they served as a display of power and wealth for the patrons and their families, they evoked prayers for the deceased who were awaiting their bodily resurrection, and they provided a vital link between the living and the dead who formed a holy alliance, united by their faith in God. This might be one of the reasons why the painting of the woman from Cana by Palma il Vecchio ended up as being erroneously identified with the resurrection of the boy of Nain. It showed the intimate, even bodily connection between the faithful and the Saviour and underlined the power of divine grace and mercy.

In Protestant regions, where prayers and intercession for the dead were practically abolished, many artworks reinforced the role of Christ as the sole Saviour. Neither participation in good deeds nor the receiving of indulgences and prayers were considered soul-saving, but only faith in Christ (sola fide). As we have seen in the painting from Leipzig, Protestant depictions of the resurrection of the son of the widow of Nain thus often focus on the faith of their patrons. Additionally—as is shown by numerous paintings from the workshop of Lucas Cranach—they cite text passages from the New Testament, for the adherence to the authority of Scripture alone (sola scriptura) was one of the buttresses of faith in Christ alone.

With the dawn of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century and increasingly during the nineteenth century—which saw scientific progress alongside increased anticlerical tendencies—these religious patterns of understanding came to be viewed more critically. The empirical sciences conceptualized the soul as a neurophysiological artefact that ceased to exist with the death of the body. Any hope of a joyful reunion with the deceased on the Day of the Last Judgement was thus dismissed. In Italy, this process of rationalization and secularization led to a decline of Christian symbols and to an increasing attention to mundane emotions of sorrow, love, and affect when it came to the decoration of tombs. Rather than featuring biblical accounts of resurrections, they often focused on the individual feelings of the persons who were left behind—as we can see here in the case of Pietro Testi and his photoceramic tombstone.

Nevertheless the miracle of the resurrection of the boy of Nain through the touch of Jesus draws our attention to the importance of bodily contact and active stimulation of our senses, which have the power to provoke emotional response and physical reactions. His resurrection was not just a resurrection of a body, but a resurrection which was caused by a body. This corporeality of the miracle was central to its artistic and theological legacy and already emphasized by Cyril of Alexandria: ‘Why … did he not work the miracle by only a word but also touched the bier? It was, my beloved, that you might learn that the holy body of Christ is productive for the salvation of man. The flesh of the almighty Word is the body of life and was clothed with his might’ (Commentary on Luke, Homily 36).

 

References

Buchner, Moritz. 2018. Warum weinen? Eine Geschichte des Trauerns im liberalen Italien (1850–1915) (Berlin: De Gruyter)

Cyril of Alexandria. Commentary on the Gospel of St Luke.1983. Trans. by R. Payne Smith (Long Island: Studion Publishers)

Vidor, Gian Marco. 2014. ‘Satisfying the Mind and Inflaming the Heart: Emotions and Funerary Epigraphy in Nineteenth-century Italy’, Mortality, 19.4: 342–60