The Tomb as an Altar

One of the common comments that I’ve gotten when showing Resurrection pictures to other people is this: why does the tomb look the way that it does?

For example, tradition states that Christ was a tomb that was essentially a cave, as mentioned in the bible. A stone was rolled over the door of this tomb, as told in the bible.

So… why do many artworks portray the tomb as a sarcophagus, like such?

Resurrection of Christ, by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio), c. 1499-1502. Sao Paulo Museum of Art, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Via IllustratedPrayer.com
Resurrection of Christ, by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio), c. 1499-1502. Sao Paulo Museum of Art, Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The easiest answer to this is probably that this sarcophagus was more distinguishable as a tomb to the people who saw this picture. There are other pictures that display Christ coming out of a cave (which we’ll get to in a bit!) but for the audience back in the day, it is likely that they would immediately recognize it as a tomb, whereas the cave might have needed a little more explanation. Even in the artwork featuring a cave, many times Christ is still coming out a tomb that looks like a sarcophagus. (For instance, in this picture, Jesus is coming out of a sarcophagus, even though He is in the mouth of a cave.

But the other answer is this: a sarcophagus looks very much like an altar.

The very earliest Christians used tombs as altars. In many of the Roman catacombs, for instance, the tombs of martyrs of the church were used as altars. There, the earliest Christians would hold secret celebrations of the Eucharist together. This tradition of using the tombs of saints caught on and even today many altars look like ornate sarcophagi — complete with a relic from a saint often hidden inside!

So, the symbolism of seeing Christ rise up from this sort of tomb immediately evokes the symbolism of the mass, when the priest raises up the host from the altar and consecrates it in the Eucharistic celebration. When you consider that the Eucharistic feast is very much an Easter celebration, in which we celebrate the risen Christ with the very presence of Christ, that makes this sort of image even more breathtaking.

If that symbolism seems a little far-fetched, take a look at the featured artwork again, very carefully. It is made by Raphael. Now, take a look at another famous Raphael painting: The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, in which Raphael attempts to portray the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Some of the same themes are used: the tomb/altar, the Resurrected Christ in glory, and people all around them, gesturing up at Christ.

And so, while the portrayal of these sorts of tombs are hardly historically accurate, that was never the point of the artist’s depiction of the Resurrection. The point? To get the viewer (us!) to connect with Christ in a deeper way.

And what better way to do this than to remind us of the beauty of the Eucharist?

 

Dear Jesus,

Thank You for breaking Your tomb so that You may be physically here for us for all of eternity. Grant us Your blessing and love.

Amen.

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