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Art does not reproduce what we see. It makes us see. Paul Klee

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Tzanes, Emmanouil - VM - Nigel Halliday

Emmanouil Tzanes: Noli me tangere

He is risen!

by Nigel Halliday

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped round Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. John 20:3–8, NIV

Peter and John, hearing that the tomb is empty, run all the way there to check. On getting there John looks through the doorway and sees the grave clothes, but does not enter. Only after Peter has gone in does John venture inside as well. Then comes a curious statement: on going inside, we are told, ‘He saw and believed.’

What was it that John saw inside the tomb that caused him to believe? The fact that the grave clothes were there was itself powerful evidence that Jesus had risen. It is hard enough to believe that grave robbers could have sneaked up, moved the stone, which weighed over a ton, and made off with the body without being noticed by the guards. It is inconceivable that having got inside the tomb, they would have delayed to unwrap the body of its grave clothes. It would be easier as well as quicker to carry the body still wrapped. 

But John had already seen the grave clothes through the doorway. It was something else that caught John’s attention when he went in. And I think the artist Emmanouil Tzanes, in this lovely icon of Jesus and Mary in the garden, has seen the same thing.

Verse 7 says that the cloth that had been wrapped round Jesus’ head was lying separately from the cloth that had been wrapped around the rest of his body. We often refer to the grave-clothes as having been ‘folded’, as if Jesus had neatly tied up after himself before leaving the tomb. So we sing in the hymn Thine be the glory that the angels ‘…kept the folded grave clothes where thy body lay’.

However, the word in the Greek text does not refer to neatly folded clothes. It is the word entetuligmenon (ἐντετυλιγμένον), which means ‘wrapped up’ or ‘wound round’.   And of great interest in this context is that it is exactly the same verb that Matthew (27:59) and Luke (23:53) use to describe how Joseph of Arimethea prepared the body for burial: he wrapped it round with grave clothes.

This, I think, is what John saw on that first Easter Sunday morning: the grave-clothes, not taken off and folded in a neat pile, but still as they had been wrapped around Jesus’ body. He saw the cocoon with – if you will pardon the pun – no body there.  

Presumably the cocoon had collapsed in on itself, which would explain why John, outside the tomb, did not immediately realize what he was looking at. But up close he will have seen that the grave clothes were still as they had been when Jesus was buried – but the body itself had disappeared from within them. That really would make you believe. 

This is what Tzanes shows in the background to his icon Noli me tangere. The risen Jesus greets Mary Magdalene in the garden. Behind them we see the empty tomb. And within the tomb we see the grave clothes still wrapped around as they had been at the burial. Perhaps because he is Greek, the artist has picked up the nuance of entetuligmenon more exactly than painters who only know the story in translation.

The Christian faith is unique in being rooted in historical events. The basis of what we believe is a history – the creation, the fall, God’s promise of redemption coming to fruition in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our doctrinal statements are mostly framed around this history, because the historicity of this story is vital: if Jesus was not raised from the dead, we can have no confidence that he was the sinless Son of God, and therefore no confidence that his death really paid for our sins. The events are themselves part of our faith.

If the historicity is important, so too is the credibility of the evidence, so that our faith can be sure. The New Testament is full of overwhelming evidence for the resurrection. Jesus appears to people who knew him. Sceptic Thomas meets Jesus and is convinced. Jesus appears on one occasion to 500 people at the same time (if people mass-hallucinate, they all see different things; if 500 people all agree on what they are looking at, they are not hallucinating). Not even the Jewish leaders disputed that the tomb was empty, but there is no credible explanation for it being so other than the resurrection.  

But I particularly like this bit of evidence: the grave-clothes were still entetuligmenon, wound around as for the burial. But the body had gone from inside. Quite clearly, God was at work.  

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Emmanouil Tzanes: Noli me tangere1657, egg tempera on wood, 91 x 71.5 cm; Antivouniotissa Museum, Corfu Town.

Emmanouil Tzanes, also known as Buniales, was born in 1610 in Rethymno, Crete, which was then part of the Venetian empire. Most of his work was produced in Venice, where he became a leading figure in the latter stages of the Cretan school of icon painting. The Cretan school was the dominant force in Greek painting after the fall of Constantinople in 1453; its most famous practitioner, although one who eventually moved far from its style, was El Greco. Tzanes died in Venice on 28 March 1690.

Nigel Halliday is a freelance teacher and writer in the History of Art and one of the leaders of Hope Church, Greatham and Petersfield, in the UK. See www.nigelhalliday.org.  

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