The Resurrection, by Piero della Francesca, a fresco from the 1460s found in the Palazzo della Residenza, the City Hall, as it were, in the town of Sansepolcro, Tuscany, Italy. As is so often the case, in person it is far more impressive and moving than any reproduction. This fresco has made a strong impressions on many people, including many non-Catholics and even atheists. Huxley wrote about it. This is Christ in triumph, but also Christ in judgement, which makes it an image well-suited to our current crazy years. It was commissioned not for a church or chapel, but for the place where city government was conducted. The village elders would pray before it prior to conducting business, to remind themselves that they would be judged by Christ, who died and rose that they might be saved. Look at the face della Francesca gave to Christ: A merciful yet just judge.
This fresco shows an amazing degree of sophistication: 2 vanishing points, one for the soldiers, one for Christ, so that the eye can contemplate them both separately and together. The near-hyperrealism of the guards on the one hand stands against the utter disregard for gravity and anatomy other. There are three legs between four guards; the guard in the front right is leaning on air; more subtly, the guards in the middle have assumed anatomically and physically impossible positions. While there are technical accounts of why this is so, the simple reason is that della Francesca was painting the Resurrection, not a bunch of mercenary guards. Stuffing in the right number of legs and giving them all proper postures and things to lean on just didn’t figure into it.
This masterpiece narrowly survived destruction in World War II when British artillery officer Tony Clarke defied orders to shell the town. He had never seen the fresco, but had read Huxly’s description, and had seen the destruction of Monte Cassino. He didn’t want to go down in History as the dude who wantonly and needlessly destroyed a priceless work of art. The grateful villagers (Sansepolcro is hardly more than a village even today) named a street after Clarke. (1)
The della Francesca brough the image below to mind: Gerard David’s image of the Judgement of Cambyses. commissioned in 1488 for the City Hall of Bruges. In this diptych, we see on the left Cyrus’s son Cambyses condemning the corrupt judge Sisamnes, who on the right is shown suffering his sentence: being flayed alive. His skin was then used to cover the judgement seat, occupied next by his successor: his own son.
Dante puts traitors to benefactors in the lowest circle of Hell. This would include those who are entrusted with the public good and abuse that trust. On this most holy of days, we rejoice that a good, merciful and just judge awaits us, but are warned to not presume on his mercy. We pray for those who reject His authority, and fervently throw ourselves on his mercy and beg mercy on everyone we know.
Mercy is there for the asking, but God is too polite to force His mercy on us if we won’t ask for it.
- One of the weird things that came out of the two world wars: in my (very light – I welcome correction here) reading, wanton destruction for the sake of revenge was just as much, if not more, prevalent on the British side than the Nazi side (one gets the impression the Americans were merely clueless, but I’m hardly an authority). Understandable, since the Germans bombed London to terrorize the English. Given the horror of those attacks and British character, that did not go over well. I think many in England would have reduced all of Germany to ash if they could. They came close in some places. Meanwhile, there are numerous stories about Nazi officers doing what they could to prevent wanton destruction: not burning Paris against orders, not putting anything important enough to destroy in the ancient heart of Florence, for two examples. Not defending Naziism (isn’t it insane that I think it necessary to state that?) but individual Nazis were just human beings like us, and could behave as evilly or beautifully as anybody else. We prevent ourselves from learning from this cautionary tale by blanket vilification: those people were not like us! They were evil! Nope, they were for the most part just regular folks who fell to social pressures, a misplaced sense of duty and a eagerness to believe a story whereby their troubles were all somebody else’s fault. Kind of exactly like most people today.