Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Iconography of the Resurrection – Christ Appears to His Mother

Rogier van der Weyden
Christ Appearing to His Mother
Flemish, ca. 1445
Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie

All the Resurrection imagery we’ve looked at up to this point has its basis in the Biblical accounts of the Resurrection and the appearances of the Risen Jesus – to the women, to Mary Magdalene, at Emmaus and to the Apostles. However, there is one other subject, of which several interpretations exist, that has a non-Biblical derivation. This is the image of Christ Appearing to His Mother after the Resurrection.

To say that the image has a non-Biblical derivation is not to say that it in any way contradicts the Bible. Indeed, it does not. The Bible tells us, specifically, that there were many people to whom the Risen Jesus appeared. That one of these should be His mother is a logical conclusion. She was the means through which He entered the physical world (Luke 1:38); He performed his first miracle in response to her plea at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11); she was present at the Crucifixion (John 19:25-27). She had been a witness to the most important events in His life and mission. It is quite logical that she should be a witness to His resurrection, principal among those unnamed persons to whom the Bible says Christ appeared after His resurrection. Therefore, the idea of the Virgin Mary as a witness to the resurrection has a long history in Christianity.

It was already established by the time of St. Ambrose (340 – 397). In his treatise on virginity (Liber de Virginitate) he says “Vidit ergo Maria resurretionem Domini: et prima vidit, et credidit” (Therefore Mary saw the resurrection of the Lord: she saw it first and believed – translation mine). 1 Over time this idea developed from envisioning Mary as one of the women at the tomb to a separate private apparition of the Risen Jesus to His mother. It was given its most definite form around 1300 by the writer known as the Pseudo-Bonaventure in the Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. The author said:

“And then about the same time, that is to say, early in the morning, Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobi and Salome, taking their leave first of Our Lady, took their way toward the grave with precious ointments. Dwelling still at home Our Lady made her prayer….”
(Snipping quote of the prayer in which she recounts the Passion and pleads for her Son to be returned to life)
“And with that, she so praying, sweet tears shedding, lo suddenly Our Lord Jesus came and appeared to her, and in all white clothes, with a glad and lovely cheer, greeting her in these words “Hail, Holy Mother.” And anon she turning said: “Art Thou Jesus, my blessed Son?” And therewith she kneeling down honored Him; and He also kneeling beside her said: “My dear Mother, I am. I have risen, and lo, I am with you.” And then both rising up kissed the other; and she with unspeakable joy clasped
Him, sadly, resting all upon Him, and He gladly bare her up and sustained her.”2

Rabula Gospels,
Syrian, 6th century
Florence, Laurentian Library

In art history, the subject is not a common one. There are some manuscript illustrations and frescoes between the 6th and the 15th centuries, from the Rabula Gospels,produced in 6th-century Syria (Florence, Laurentian Library),
to the Rohan Hours, produced around 1430 in France (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale) .

The best known example has been the subject of much art historical argument. This is an altarpiece in the form of a triptych (three separate painted panels that together form one whole), painted by Rogier van der Weyden, that exists in two identical versions.

Rogier van der Weyden, Miraflores Altarpiece
Flemish, ca. 1445
Berlin, Gemaeldegaleris

 The left panel depicts the Adoration of the Infant Jesus, the middle panel is the Pietà and the right panel is "Christ Appearing to His Mother".

Attributed to Juan de Flandres,
Christ Appearing to His Mother
Flemish (Active Spain), ca. 1496
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
One version is a complete three-panel painting that is now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. It was commissioned by King Juan II of Castile and left by him to the Carthusian monastery of Miraflores. The other, commissioned by King Juan’s daughter, Isabella (who married Ferdinand of Aragon to form the famous pair of Ferdinand and Isabella) was originally placed in the Capilla Real in Grenada. It was broken up prior to 1632. Two of the panels stayed in situ in Grenada. The third, which happened to be the “Christ Appearing to His Mother” panel, was held in the collection of the Dukes of Osuña for many years, until the early 20th century. Between about 1900 and 1921 this panel was in several private collections until its last owner bequeathed it to the Metropolitan Museum. One set was presumed to be a copy of the other, but for decades art historical opinion has been unable to agree on which is which. A detailed description of this panel, including a list of references can be found on the Met’s website (here).3

Currently, based on the study of the tree rings in the wooden panels on which the two are painted, it seems generally agreed that the Berlin triptych, known as the Miraflores Altarpiece after the monastery to which it was originally given, is the original, presumably coming from the hand of Rogier himself. The other triptych, known as the Granada-New York triptych, is now generally thought to be a later copy, executed by Juan de Flandres. who was a court painter to Ferdinand and Isabella. The history of the arguments is well summarized on the Metropolitan Museum’s website (here). As his name suggests, Juan de Flandres (John of Flanders) was himself from the Low Countries.
In the picture we see that, as described in the Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, Mary had been at prayer when Jesus appears. Her prayer book lies on the bench beside her. She has fallen to her knees and raised her hands in surprise or in prayer. Jesus stands beside her, wrapped in a red cloak, the wounds in His hands, feet and side clearly visible. The two figures are positioned within a Gothic frame like a doorway. Behind them we can see into a larger open space, a vaulted room with columns and tiled floor. There are windows and an open door that looks out onto a tranquil garden landscape where Jesus can be seen climbing from the tomb in the presence of an angel and the sleeping guards. In the far distance, the three women can be seen approaching. This suggests that the appearance to the Virgin is happening simultaneously with the Resurrection event, thus making it the very first appearance of the Risen Jesus.
Rogier van der Weyden
Panel of Christ Appearing to His Mother
Flemish, ca. 1445
Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie

The foreground framework within which the two principal figures appear has the appearance of wood. Positioned on either side what appear to be small stone statues and carved scenes. The statues have canopies which also appear to be of stone. The two saints depicted are St. Paul, identified by the sword by which he was killed, and St. Mark the Evangelist, identified by the lion that has been his traditional symbol and by the book in which he is writing.   

Around the upper parts of the frame are the carved scenes, which come from both the New Testament and the traditions associated with Mary. They move chronologically from top left to top right as follows:
• Top left is the seated Mary with three standing people. This may be the scene described by the Pseudo-Bonaventure which takes place just before the apparition of the Risen Christ to Mary in which the three women take leave of Mary as they prepare to go to the tomb.
• Middle left is the scene of the Ascension. Mary is among the group of disciples who watch as Jesus ascends into the cloud. The lower part of His body can still be seen, while the upper part has disappeared into the cloud.
• Bottom left is the scene of Pentecost. Mary is among the group of disciples on whom the dove of the
 Holy Spirit is seen to be descending.

Left side
Right side
• Bottom right is the scene in which the impending death of Mary is announced by an angel. Although it looks very like a scene of the Annunciation, it is distinguished from it by the fact that the angel presents Mary with a palm branch, a symbol of her approaching death.
• Middle right is the death of the Virgin. Mary, holding the palm branch and surrounded by the disciples, prepares to die.
• Top right is the coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven. Mary has been raised to heaven by angels and God the Father (on the right), joined by Jesus (God the Son), jointly place the crown of heaven on her head, while the Dove of the Holy Spirit hovers above her.

Each of the scenes has its own canopy, which also form a base for the scene above it. And, at the top of the framework, an angel hovers, holding a crown, symbol of Mary’s queenship. The historiated capitals of the
columns in the adjoining room illustrate Old Testament Biblical scenes that are prefigurations of the
Resurrection, but the resolution on the internet is not good enough for them to be seen clearly here.

The two versions are remarkably similar and it is small wonder that it has been so difficult to determine their precedence.
Attributed to Juan de Flandres
Christ Appearing to His Mother
Flemish (active Spain), ca. 1496
New York, Metropolitan

Juan de Flandres
Christ Appearing to His Mother
Flemish (active Spain), 1496-1500
Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie
How remarkable this was for the copy can be seen by comparing the presumed copy, in New York, to a painting of the same subject by Juan de Flandres, dating to around 1496-1500 and now in Berlin (Gemäldegalerie). This is painted in his own style and is in a more contemporary setting, more open and classical. It seems to be set on the portico of a classical building. But many of the same elements are found in it. Again, Mary has been reading in a prayer book and Jesus again shows His wounds. Above the portico angels hover, while in the heavens we can see aureoles surrounding God the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Durer, Small Passion
German, 1509-1511

Attributed to the Master of the
St. Ursula Legend
Paul Pagnotti with St. Paul and Christ
Appearing to His Mother
German, late 1480s
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

At around the same time Albrecht Durer was creating his own version of the scene for his Small Passion of 1510.   It was picked up also by other painters, mainly from the Low Countries.  Among them is a version, clearly derived from Rogier’s, which forms the right wing of what was formerly a triptych by the Master of the St. Ursula Legend.  The two side panels are now also in the Metropolitan Museum and are dated to the late 1480s.  Again we see the same gestures and a similar setting, but in a far more compressed space.

Guercino, Christ Appearing to His Mother
Italian, 1629
Cento, Pinacoteca Comunale
In the seventeenth century the subject once again seems to have had a slight revival. Among them is a painting by Guercino (Cento, Pinacoteca Comunale). This version presents a slightly later moment in the description of Pseudo-Bonaventure, the moment when Mary embraces her Son. Here also, Jesus wears the white robes specified in the description, instead of the red robes of the northern paintings. He also carries the banner of victory, associated with the triumph of His resurrection. Although set in an indoor space there is no attempt to describe the settings of the room in the kind of detail seen in the Rogierian paintings. And, instead of the brightly lit northern versions, this painting exhibits the chiaroscuro that distinguishes the 17th century.

After the 17th century this touching subject seems to have no longer been requested from artists and died out.  Several reasons have been suggested for this:  the effect of the general tightening up of Catholic practice and imagery that was part of the Counter-Reformation, a shift to more secular subject matter on the part of artists, changing tastes on the part of patrons.


1.  Quoted in Breckenridge, James D., "Et Prima Vidit:  The Iconography of the Appearance of Christ to His Mother". Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, Number 1,  March 1957, p. 15.  Breckenridge is quoting from St. Ambrose, Liber de Virginitate, Vol I, Part iii, 14 found in Migne, Patrologia Latina, 16, col. 283.
2.  Breckenridge, p.17.  Breckenridge is quoting from Pseudo-Bonaventure, Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, Oxford, 1908, pp. 261-263.
3.  Additional analysis can be found in Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, Harvard University
Press, Cambridge, MA, 1966.

© M. Duffy, 2011