Friday, May 17, 2013

In the eyes of Piero's resurrected Christ

I thought I would post one last vignette from Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner.

During the year that Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang spend in Florence, they take one day a jaunt to Sanselpolero, to visit the chapel in which you find Piero’s painting of Christ’s Resurrection. What follows gave me cause to look for this painting, for reasons which might also become necessary to you should you read on.

Until then there had been a good deal of frivolity in us, a spring-time response to the blossoms and the mild, clear air. But Piero’s Christ knocked it out of us like an elbow in the solar plexus. That gloomy, stricken face permitted no forgetful high spirits. It was not the face of a god reclaiming his suspended immortality, but the face of a man who until a moment ago had been thoroughly and horribly dead, and still had the smell of death in his clothes and the terror of death in his mind. If resurrection had taken place, it had not yet been comprehended.

Three of us were moved to respect, perhaps awe, by that painting, but Charity thought, or pretended to think, that it was another instance of an artist resorting to shock for his effects. Instead of trying to paint the joy, the beatification, the wonder that would naturally accompany the triumph over death—and uplifting idea if there ever was one—Piero had chosen to do it backwards, upside down. She thought he was anti-human in his scornful portraits of the drunken soldiers, and anti-God in his portrait of Christ. It seemed to her an arrogant painting. Instead of showing pity for human suffering it insisted on grinding down on the shocking details. Instead of trying to paint the joyfulness of Christ’s sacrifice Piero almost seemed to call it hopeless. Why hadn’t he, if only by a gleam in the sky or the glimpsed feather of an angel’s wing, put in anything that suggested the immediacy of heaven and release? And what terrible eyes this Christ had!

We did not argue with her. She was still developing her sundial theory of art, which would count no hours but the sunny ones. But I noticed that Sally stood a long while on her crutches in front of that painting propped temporarily against a frame of raw two-by-fours. She studied it soberly, with something like recognition or acknowledgment in her eyes, as if those who have been dead understand things that will never be understood by those who have only lived.  
I do so like that. Granted it is not so theologically sound (though it gave me reason to lie in bed and ponder whether Christ rose from the dead himself, or did he need God to raise him, and to recall bible verses that spoke to such things, and to wonder what it might have been like to come back from a God-less death, if that could be said of Christ ... until I had to stop and go to sleep). Yet it does reverberate towards the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings, and towards what we know of having a high priest who is able to sympathise with us in our sufferings.

The eyes of Piero’s Christ (look at a large close up of these if you can) become a kind of symbol in the book, that comes back twice more, of the community of those who know suffering, of what it means to suffer. I've not been able to forget them since.

1 comment:

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