The name Tony Clarke is a common enough name. But it is the name also of a man who has gone down in the annals of the art world as a great hero. Tony Clarke was a British artillery officer who disobeyed orders to shell an Italian village during the second world war, the village was thought to contain German soldiers and maybe also thought to potentially hold up the advance of the allied forces. Clarke apparently had witnessed the earlier destruction of Montcassino, the terrible loss of life and the destruction of a great centre of culture and art and he shied away from doing the same here. He told his men to hold fire and halt the shelling of the village. What had really motivated him not to shell the village was the presence of a painting which the great writer Aldous Huxley, had described in these words “its stands there before us in entire and actual splendour , the greatest picture in the world”. The painting that Huxley mentioned and Clarke knew about was the painting of the Resurrection by Piero Della Francesca. Because Clarke disobeyed his orders he is regarded as a great hero of the art world.
Piero Della Francesca was an artist of the 15thcentury who was known to all the great artists of the day and painted in the great cities of Italy. This painting of the resurrection of Christ was painted for the major town building where the chief magistrates and governors met, the town was called San Sepolcro, the name means the holy tomb, a reference to the tomb of Christ – it was the home village of the artist himself. The painting is about 8 feet in height and stands in the entrance of the building the magistrates and councillors were said to gather around the painting at the start of the day to say their prayers before the day’s business.
The canvas shows the risen Jesus stepping out of the tomb carrying a banner. Below him are the sleeping guards that have been posted by Pilate to stop anyone breaking into the tomb. There is no recognisable expression on Jesus face, he seems impassive, beyond things. The sleeping guards are in all sorts of positions but are deeply asleep. The landscape looks more like an Italian landscape than it does a middle eastern one. In the background there are old and new trees, maybe an allusion to the passing from the old to the new that the painting is about. Christ in the painting is climbing out of the tomb, he is rising up. The sleeping figure are below him and sleep through this great event. The painting is casting in a dawn light, the first rising of the sun in the new day. It tells of the Easter morning in which everything is different.
Huxley calls it the “greatest painting in the world” because there is something in it which captures the moment. The majesty of the figure of Jesus. The day that has come. The quality of the light that covers the picture. The interplay between death, symbolised by the tomb and the sleepers who seem in a deathly sleep and the figure of Jesus is fully alive. In an age which was acquainted with death (the plague of the black death) this was a painting about life. The living, the new light of the dawn and everything to hope in.
In actual fact what is contained in this picture is a moment that is not mentioned in the Gospels, the actual moment when Christ comes forth from the tomb. What we find mentioned in the passages of the Gospel is something different: the tomb that was empty, the clothes rolled up, the stone rolled away, the consternation of those who first come to the tomb. There is no mention of the actual moment, it is as if it is shrouded in secrecy. In actual fact the evangelists don’t even mention that they saw the resurrection coming, nor do they pretend that they were there when it happened. It comes as a bolt from the blue. When the woman come from the tomb, they think that what they say is utter madness.
Piero Della Francesca rolls the film back to see the moment which no human saw. Tis is what he sees in his mind’s eye: He cast the event of Jesus resurrection, the moment he comes from the tomb in the first beams of new light of morning. The world sleeps through the event symbolised by the guards sleeping, but the Lord is awake. The body of Jesus is a perfect risen body, no longer ravaged by the passion and torture of the days before. The old and new trees symbolises the old giving way to the new. The moment is different, the time is different, everything is different.
On this day in which we celebrate Easter, none of us saw the tomb empty, the clothes gathered together and rolled up and placed to the side, the stone rolled away. None of us saw the moment that is recalled by Piero Della Francesca’s great painting but today on this Easter Sunday we are here to recall the moment, the day, the time, that new light, that passing from the old to the new which Christ’s resurrection means for us.
Huxley calls the painting “the greatest picture in the world” because he was captivated by its beaty he could also have added that it was of the “greatest event in the world”.
Today that is what we have come to celebrate the greatest event in the world. The most marvellous of things. The most sublime thing even know, that God has come into the world and risen from the dead. It brings a new day, a new light, a new hope which the great painter saw in his mind’s eye and which we come to testify by our presence here and the Christian lives we lead.
Christ is risen from the dead. Alleluia, Alleluia.