Saturday, February 7, 2015

Tanner's Open Tomb

When I went to the Chicago Art Institute a few weeks ago, I was struck by Tanner's painting of Christ's tomb. The painting's ambiguity captivated me. At what point in Passion Week are we encountering Peter and John? 

photo cred: moi
It is clear from the shadowy background that it is either dusk or dawn, and yet, light radiates from within the tomb. Where does the light come from? Is it from torches or some angelic light (I am reminded of Tanner's Annunciation, in which Gabriel is represented as a beam of light)? Are Peter and John watching as Jesus' body is laid in the grave? Or, are they returning after the resurrection to see for themselves the emptiness of the tomb? We are told in the Gospels that Peter, upon hearing from the Holy Women that the tomb was empty, got up and ran to it (Luke 24:12). 

The ambiguity of the painting pressures the viewer to answer this question for himself: if I went to the tomb, would I find it empty? The tomb is open, because the question is open: did he rise or not?

In a lovely little poem, Charlotte Mew remarks how the death of a mere rat can "unmake the spring":

The Trees Are Down

                           "and he cried with a loud voice: 
                      Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees"--

Revelation 7.2-3

They are cutting down the great plane-trees at the end of the gardens.
For days there has been the grate of the saw, the swish of the branches as they fall,
The crash of the trunks, the rustle of trodden leaves,
With the 'Whoops' and the 'Whoa', the loud common talk,
        the loud common laughs of the men, above it all.

I remember one evening of a long past Spring
Turning in at a gate, getting out of a cart, and finding
        a large dead rat in the mud of the drive.
I remember thinking: alive or dead, a rat was a god-forsaken thing,
But at least, in May, that even a rat should be alive.

The week's work here is as good as done. There is just one bough
On the roped bole, in the fine grey rain,
        Green and high
        And lonely against the sky.
                  (Down now! -)
        And but for that,
        If an old dead rat
Did once, for a moment unmake the Spring, I might never have thought of him again. 

It is not for a moment the Spring is unmade today;
These were great trees, it was in them from root to stem:
When the men with the 'Whoops' and the 'Whoas' have carted the whole
        of the whispering loveliness away
Half the Spring, for me, will have gone with them.

It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the hearts of the planes;
Half my life it has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,
        In the March wind, the May breeze,
In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas.
        There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;
        They must have heard the sparrows flying,
And the small creeping creatures in the earth where they were lying--
        But I, all day, I heard an angel crying:
          'Hurt not the trees.'

If we answer "no" to the question, then every rat and every fallen tree unmakes the Spring, reminds that all things must die. But, if we answer "yes", then every dead or dying thing is a quiet reminder that "Death, thou shalt die."