The Resurrection

Monasterboice, Cross of Muiredach, Co. Meath, Ireland

This page explores a hand full of crosses that seem to offer a depiction of The Resurrection, Christ in the Tomb, and The Women at the Tomb.

More than fifty separate figural high crosses contain images of the crucifixion.  The Cross of Muiredach at Monasterboice, County Louth (right) is a fine example.

When it comes to the Resurrection, however, there are less than a hand full of crosses that offer any possible depiction.  Below we will examine perhaps the most compelling of these images.  It is found on the cross of Muiredach at Monasterboice and is visible to the right and below on the right hand arm of the cross.  In addition to this image several scenes of Jesus in the Tomb include a resurrection theme.  We will consider all four of these below.  They are, as you will note, very similar to one another.  In a few other scenes the Women at the Tomb appear, a reminder of the Gospel message that they did not find Jesus' body in the tomb because he had Risen.  The Women at the Tomb was an early symbol for the empty tomb, a sign of the resurrection.  We will look at two of these tableaus below in relation to the Resurrection theme.

Resurrection Scenes

The Text:  

None of the four gospels offers a narration of the resurrection.  Each of the four make a jump from the burial on Friday to the empty tomb on Sunday morning.  It is the arrival of one or more of the women at the tomb that begins the story.  What they discover is an empty tomb.  

The Images

Monasterboice, Muiredach's Cross, Co. Meath, Ireland

Peter Harbison identifies four crosses that may have an image of the resurrection.  They are:  Clonmacnois, Cross of the Scriptures, West face, base, lower panel, centre, County Offaly; Drumcliff, National Museum, Upper fragment, West 1 County Sligo; Galloon, East Cross, East 3 County Fermanagh; and Monasterboice, Muiredach's Cross, West face, South Arm, County Louth (illustrated to the left).  (Harbison 1992, 288)  Each of these examples has a similar layout.  

The Resurrection, Muiredach's Cross, Monasterboice:  Helen Roe describes the image on Muiredach's Cross as follows:  "A composition not recorded elsewhere in Irish work, offering a stylized version of the Resurrection.  In the foreground the guards at the tomb each kneeling on one knee.  Behind them the opening of the sepulcher shown as a narrow arch and above three angels drawing up between them a napkin in which is a soul-figure."  (Roe, 2003, 33)

While agreeing with her interpretation, Peter Harbison offers a more complete analysis of the scene with one slight difference.  "Two soldiers are shown facing one another on one knee, and holding swords over their shoulders.  They put one hand up to the tomb in the shape of an inverted U which, together with the space between and above the soldiers' legs, provides the shape of a sunken cross.  Above them, Christ with outspread knees is wafted upwards, his outstretched arms supported on either side by an angel.  There may be a further angel in the top left-hand corner, while behind the soldier on the lower left there is a small figure -- perhaps representing a woman who came to the tomb on Easter Sunday morning."  (Harbison, 1992, 145)

An Interpretation

The difference in these two interpretations is that while Roe sees Christ being drawn up on a napkin, Harbison identifies Christ as having his knees apart and drawn up in what might be thought of as a modified yoga position.  Roe's description was confusing to me because only three heads appear clearly in the image.  Harbison's description makes clear that the center of the three heads in the upper part of the image is that of the Risen Christ.  He does this by identifying the presence of what may be another angel in the top left-hand corner.  He also identifies a figure that may be a woman coming to the tomb.

What is the possible source of this image?  Peter Harbison points out that a similar written description of the resurrection can be found in the Gospel of Peter.  This is a non-canonical gospel believed to have been composed sometime after 150 CE.  In 1886 a manuscript containing this fragmentary gospel was discovered in Upper Egypt.  The script of this particular manuscript was dated to the 8th or 9th century.  (Miller, 399)   Given the close connection between Ireland and the monasticism of the Desert, it is reasonable to assume that this gospel could have been known in Ireland at the time of the creation of Muiredach's cross, probably the 10th century.  (Richardson and Scarry, 44)

The pertinent section of the text reads as follows:  "While they [the soldiers guarding the tomb] were explaining what they had seen [to the Centurion and elders], again they see three men leaving the tomb, two supporting the third, and a cross was following them.  The heads of the two reached up to the sky, while the head of the third reached beyond the skies."  (Miller, 405; also quoted in full in Harbison 1992, 286)

This description comes very close to fitting the tableau above.  Christ, supported by two [or three] angels moves up from the tomb and a cross in the tomb may be thought of as following.  The guards, possibly frozen in fear (Mt. 28:4), are similar to the figures of the guards in the images of Christ in the tomb that will be considered next.  The possible presence of one of the women at the tomb, let's say Mary Magdalene, emphasizes that this is once more a composite image, encompassing more than one moment in time.  What we see is the guards reaction to the arrival of the angels, the angels completing their part in the resurrection, and Mary Magdalene approaching the now empty tomb. 

Christ in the Tomb:

The Text: Matthew 27:59-66, 28:2-4

Each of the gospels describes the burial of Jesus.  Matthew does it as follows:  So Joseph [of Arimathea] took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock.  He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.  Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

Only Matthew discusses the guard placed on the tomb.  The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said.  "Sir, we remember that that impostor said while he was still alive. 'After three days I will rise again.'  Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people 'He has been raised from the dead' and the last deception would be worse than the first."  Pilate said to them, "You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can."  So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

Matthew also reports the coming of the angels and the reaction of the guards.  And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lighting, and his clothing white as snow.  For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 

The Images

Peter Harbison identifies four figural high crosses that contain an image of Christ in the tomb.  These are each shown below.  They are:  Tall Cross, Monasterboice, West 2, County Louth; Market Cross, Kells, East 3, County Meath; the Scripture Cross, Clonmacnois, West 1, County Offaly; and the Durrow Cross, West 1, County Offaly.                

Monasterboice, Tall cross, Co. Louth, Ireland

Tall Cross, Monasterboice:  Helen Roe describes the scene on the Tall Cross at Monasterboice as follows.  "Much weathered and in part mutilated.  The body of Christ rests below a massive slab; above this the soldiers sit, their heads bowed in slumber.  Over the soldiers are two heads which may be those of angels.  Between the soldiers rises the slender shaft of a resurrection cross."  (Roe, 2003, 50)




Kells, Market Cross, Co. Meath, Ireland


Market Cross, Kells:  Ms Roe explains the image on the Market Cross at Kells as follows.  "Beneath the heavy stone of the tomb the body of Christ is laid.  Crouched above are the two guards, armed with spears, their heads bowed to show that at the moment of the Resurrection they 'became as dead men'.  (Matt. 28,4)  A long, slender cross, adored by angels, rises behind and above the bent heads of the guards, as symbol of the Resurrection.  On the right of the panel two or more figures were shown; whether those of the Holy Women or of angels is uncertain owing to the damaged state of the stone, which has also caused the loss of the upper part of Christ's body."  (Roe, 1988, 28)


Clonmacnois, Cross of the Scriptures, Co. Offaly, Ireland

Scripture Cross, Clonmacnois:  Peter Harbison writes of the tableau on the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois as follows.  "The body of Christ lies prostrate, with his head to the left.  He is draped in a shroud bearing three equal-armed crosses in relief along its length, and with pellet decoration around the face.  Above the body is the horizontal stone of the tomb, on one end of which perches a bird which puts its beak into Christ's mouth, suggesting that it is breathing life into the dead body.  Seated on the tombstone are the large figures of two soldiers, one on the left, the other in the centre.  Their helmeted heads have fallen together in sleep, and each holds a spear over his shoulder.  To the left of the spearhead of the soldier in the centre there is a small head, and another appears in the top right-hand corner of the panel.  Seated on the right-hand end of the tombstone is an angel, in front of which stands a miniature figure.  The two heads in the upper right-hand section may conceivably represent the same two ladies who approach the tomb on the bottom right of the base below.  The identification of the small figure in front of the angel is enigmatic, but if the whole scene is related to Christ's descent into hell, it could represent Adam."  (Harbison 1992, 51)

Durrow Cross:  Peter Harbison offers this description of the tableau of Christ in the tomb.  "The soldiers, wearing plumed helmets and holding winged spears across their shoulders, sleep with their heads fallen together.  Between them there is what may be a small human figure.  The soldiers are seated on a flat stone which covers the body of the dead Christ, into whose mouth a small bird, perched on the left-hand end of the tombstone, stretches its beak.  The top of Christ's head has been broken away.  It is difficult to interpret whatever may be between the two soldiers."  (Harbison, 1992, 81)  (Photo from Harbison, 1992, Volume 2)

An Interpretation

There are several interesting features of these four scenes and their descriptions.  First, in each image the body of Jesus is still in the tomb. One important element of the Christian belief in the resurrection is the empty tomb.  In that sense, these are all pre-resurrection depictions.  

Second, the slender cross in the image appears only at Monasterboice and Kells.  It is not present at Clonmacnois or Durrow.  Helen Roe is probably correct in identifying this as a "resurrection cross".  She sees this as a graphic reference to the passage from the Gospel of Peter quoted above in connection with the resurrection scene on Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice.  (Roe, 1988, 28)  This is, of course at odds with the presence of the body in the tomb.  This apparent contradiction likely offers another reminder that many of the scenes are composite.  They depict more than one moment in time.  It also, along with the sleeping soldiers serves to place the time of the image as Sunday morning.

Third, the crosses at Monasterboice and Kells have been damaged.  In each case this means we do not see the whole of Jesus' body.  At Monasterboice the head of Christ is to the left as it is at Clonmacnois and Durrow.  We know this because the stone slab above Jesus' body does not extend over the head.  At Kells the head is to the right and is missing.  In regard to the positioning of the body of Jesus, I differ with Peter Harbison who states that at both Kells and Monasterboice the head of Christ is to the right.  (Harbison, 1992, 286)

Fourth, it can be considered likely that the missing material on the crosses at Monasterboice and Kells contained the figure of a bird, similar to the images at Clonmacnois and Durrow.  Harbison writes, "Francoise Henry pertinently alluded to the comparison of birds breathing life into the mouths of those arising on the Day of Judgment on a 9th/10th century ivory in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, so that the bird on the High Cross panels may be taken to be (? The Holy Spirit) breathing life into the shrouded body of Christ in the tomb on Easter morning."  (Harbison, 1992, 286-7)  This feature establishes the connection between this scene and the resurrection.  

Finally, if the small figure in front of the angel on the right-hand side of the Clonmacnois tableau may tentatively be identified as Adam, the same identification might be posited for the small figure between the guards on the Durrow cross.  (Harbison, 1992, 51)

The Women at the Tomb

The Text:  Mark 16:1-20

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.  And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.  They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?"  When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.  Look, there is the place they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you."  So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The Images

We have already seen seen several possible examples of the Women at the Tomb.  Peter Harbison suggested above that one of the figures on the scene of the resurrection on Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice may be a woman who came to the tomb on Sunday morning.  (Harbison, 1992, 145)  On the Market Cross at Kells, Helen Roe suggests some figures in the upper right-hand corner of the image potentially represent two or more women who came to the tomb.  (Roe, 1988, 28)  Peter Harbison puts forward the possibility that a similar collection of heads in the upper right-hand corner of the scene on the Scripture Cross at Clonmacnois may be women at the tomb.  (Harbison, 1992, 51)  There are four other images that can be identified as the Women at the Tomb.  These include:  Carndonagh, East 1, County Donegal; Clonmacnois, Cross of the Scriptures, West face, Base, Lower panel, Right, County Offaly; Kells, Unfinished Cross, East face, North arm, County Meath; and Monasterboice, Tall Cross, West 3, County Louth.  The latter two are illustrated below.

Kells, Unfinished Cross, Co. Meath, Ireland          Monasterboice, Tall Cross, Co. Louth, Ireland

Kells, Unfinished Cross:  There has been little speculation about the content of this scene (above left).  Helen Roe describes the tableau as follows:  "On the east side of the head, the panel on the north arm shows a row of four persons, dressed in long robes with hoods (?) over their heads, all of them facing in towards the Crucifixion; but, damaged as well as unfinished, the subject cannot be recognized.."  (Roe, 1988, 55)  Peter Harbison is willing to take a guess at the subject matter of this scene.  "The partially-finished panel on the north arm consists of four figures -- that on the left, clothed to the ankles, seeming to face the other three approaching from the right, who are all seemingly dressed in similar cut-away cloaks.  Although there are no distinguishing attributes or gestures visible, the best interpretation of this panel is probably that of the angel on the left speaking to the three Women as they approach the Tomb after the Resurrection."  (Harbison, 1992, 112) 

Monasterboice, Tall Cross:  As in the case of the Unfinished Cross at Kells, there is difference of opinion about the proper identification of the tableau on the Tall Cross (above right).  Harbison lists a number of interpreters and the scholars who have supported each.  These explanations include:  The Transfiguration; three of the Apostles; Peter, James and John; and the Journey to Emmaus.  For example, Helen Roe writes of this scene as follows:  "Three persons standing frontally each holding a book.  Possibly three of the apostles."  (Roe, 2003, 50)  Peter Harbison offers the following analysis.  "Three long-robed figures, shown frontally, each of them holding up an object in front.  As the central and left-hand figures seem to hold cup-like vessels, the scene probably represents the THREE HOLY WOMEN AT THE TOMB bringing spices, and although the object held by the right-hand figure might seem like a book, it could also be understood as a box-like container."  (Harbison, 1992, 150)   

An Interpretation

The gospels do not agree on which women went to the tomb early Sunday morning.  Mark tells us it was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome (Mk 16:1-8).  Matthew tells us that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary arrived (Mt 28:1-10).  Luke expands the circle.  In this gospel it is Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women who were with Jesus from Galilee who went to the tomb (Lk 23:55 and 24:1-12 ).  The Gospel of John tells us that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb alone.  Whatever their number, symbolically the women at the tomb have become a sign of the resurrection.

At Kells the figure on the left is certainly dressed differently than the three figures on the right.  This would tend to suggest that the three figures dressed alike have a shared identity while the other figure has a different and separate identity.  Which way the figure on the left is facing (toward or away from the crucifixion) is not completely clear.  Both the head and the feet could be seen to face either in toward the crucifixion or away from it.  Given the fact that the carving on the opposite arm of the cross had not been started and that the upper arm of the cross is missing, it is difficult, as Helen Roe suggests, to make a certain interpretation.  There is quite simply a lack of context. 

The situation with the tableau on the Tall Cross is equally as complex.  Given the various interpretations of the scene and that Peter Harbison is the only one to identify it as the women at the tomb, his suggestion must be taken with a grain of salt.  In context, the image appears above an image often identified as the Baptism of Jesus.  Even this is unclear as Francoise Henry identifies it not as the baptism but as the women at the tomb and Helen Roe identifies it as the resurrection of the dead.  (Harbison, 1992, 149-50)     

It turns out that all the possible examples of the Women at the Tomb are highly speculative. The gospels do, however all mention one or more of the women being at the tomb on Sunday morning.  Particularly in the scenes of Jesus in the tomb and the resurrection, it would not be out of place at all to show one or more of the women.  They were, after all, an important part of the story.  It may be that Peter Harbison is correct in interpreting the images at Kells and Monasterboice as the women at the tomb, but as we have seen there are other explanations that cannot be easily dismissed.  As with many of the scenes on the figural crosses, numerous interpretations are possible.

References cited:

Harbison, Peter, The High Crosses of Ireland:  An Iconographical and Photographic Survey, Dr. Rudolf Habelt GMBH, Bonn, 1992.  Volumn 1:  Text, Volume 2:  Photographic Survey; Volume 3:  Illustrations of Comparative Iconography.

Miller, Robert J. ed., The Complete Gospels:  Annotated Scholars Version, Harper Collins, 1992.

Richardson, Hilary and Scarry, John, An Introduction to Irish High Crosses, Mercier Press, 1990.

Roe, Helen M., The High Crosses of Kells, Meath Archaeological and Historical Society, 1988.

Roe, Helen M., Monasterboice and its Monuments, County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society, 2003.


 Barney McLaughlin 2012