Images of Christ in Italy by Judy Cooke

Images of Christ in Italy by Judy Cooke

This May, Julian and I had the great treat of spending three weeks in Italy, and experiencing the mind-blowing richness of art and architecture that flowered there during the Renaissance. We rejoiced in the historic town centres, free of the fumes and noise of cars, where we could stroll and sit and feel part of a society that knows how to live well in an urban setting, a lesson we need so badly to learn here.

We were often reminded of our own country, with a similar energy and dynamism to fifteenth-century Italy: of abundant artistic creativity, of a vitality in political and civic affairs, of the struggles to realign privilege and wealth with justice for all, of the shared downside of corruption, violence and crime.

Just to see the statue of Savonarola in Ferrara – the little, passionate and perhaps fanatic friar of Florence, executed for being a heretic in 1498, his pleading hands outstretched, begging people to see the corruption and sickness in church and society, and to read of his leadership in getting a more democratic rule of governance in Florence, replacing the tyranny of the Medici’s – was to recall other little priests in our own country, who too have risked their lives speaking ‘truth to power’. And to breathe a sigh of relief and thankfulness that it is voices like that which helped build our own democracy.

It was fascinating to see, in frescoes and paintings, the integration of Christian spirituality with a sense of civic responsibility. In Siena we saw Lorenzetti’s fourteenth-century Allegories of Good and Bad Governance; huge magnificent frescoes – didactic, secular, stern – on the walls of the Civic Museum (once the Council Chambers). They immediately rang such a bell for a South African, with all our current local debates about good and bad governance. The Siena town councillors would have debated the issues of their day underneath these mighty paintings – reminding them of the harmony in a society ruled by Justice, allied with the Christian virtues of compassion, service, fidelity, and the chaos and disorder that result in a society without these. Siena was proud of their civic vision, Lorenzetti hugely influential on painting, and I could only imagine how much our local town councillors could be inspired, and warned, if they had such paintings hanging over them!

The most riveting example of this marriage of spirituality and social concern was for me in Piero della Francesca’s fresco of the Resurrection of Christ. Considered by many to be his greatest painting, Piero painted it around 1460 for his home-town City Council, where he himself served as a councillor – on the great back wall of the Meeting Room in the civic palazzo.

In the painting you see Christ, a huge, severe figure, dominating the scene, unimaginably stepping up out of his transcended tomb, one foot purposefully poised on the edge of the sarcophagus, carrying a banner in his right hand. Like an explorer about to step into a new land. He almost seems an apparition, and his expression is stunned, hardly able to comprehend what has happened, yet somehow resolute. The genius of Piero seems to me to have captured an uncapturable moment in this painting. At his feet lie four sleeping Roman guards – one of whom, lolling against the tomb, is supposedly a self-portrait of Piero. Christ, in contrast, is supremely awake, alert, although with the pallor of death and suffering still in his body.

It is dawn; his pink cloak, golden halo and newborn freshness speaking of warmth, light and life radiating from Him to the world, as if he is our sun. Behind him, on the right-hand side of the painting, trees and countryside flourish in their spring green, while on the left all is barren and wintry, not yet touched with Christ’s new life.

The banner he carries has a cross on it – the emblem of Piero’s town, and the flagpole reaches down just behind the sleeping Piero’s head, as if to connect him directly with Christ and thereby remind and inspire him of the source behind his civic responsibilities. It is almost a credo that is being suggested here – that civic governance, inspired by Christ, can indeed be truly good and benevolent, and bring new life and justice to the people. It is said that after the fresco was completed, the town was renamed San Sepolcro (The Holy Sepulchre), which tells us how deeply the people identified with the vitality and vision this image of Christ brought them.

So we too felt inspired, and moved, that an artist, serving on his local town council six centuries ago, should portray so magnificently the passionate hope and belief in the goodness and new life that the resurrected Jesus can bring our communal life.