Abundance and Hope in della Robbia’s Resurrection

Giovanni della Robbia, Resurrection of Christ Brooklyn Museum, gift of A. Augustus Healy | Creative Commons


The Resurrection of Christ
The Brooklyn Museum
200 Eastern Parkway
Brooklyn, New York
Long-term installation 

Review by Pamela A. Lewis

Composed of 46 glazed terra cotta pieces, The Resurrection of Christ by Renaissance artist Giovanni della Robbia (1469-1529/30), is a mighty and gorgeous relief sculpture depicting Christ’s triumphant rising from the dead. A compositional and technical tour de force, Resurrection is replete with religious symbolism and references to antiquity. Even the wealthy Florentine patron who commissioned the work is included among its sculptural figures.

The first Italian Renaissance work to enter the Brooklyn Museum’s collection (1899), Resurrection soon became one of its most significant artworks. Over time, however, institutional priorities changed, and since the 1990s the massive sculpture was either in storage or otherwise difficult to see. After a major 2015 conservation project generously funded by Marchesi Antinori, a scion of the same family of vintners whose ancestors commissioned Resurrection nearly 500 years ago, the sculpture was returned to a prominent place in the museum.

The della Robbia workshop in Florence encompassed three generations of prolific and gifted entrepreneurial artists, whose work was as ubiquitous as it was beautiful. Their colorful plaques and sculptures decorated civic, private, and religious buildings throughout the city and beyond. The workshop’s founder, Luca (1399/1400-82), established it in the early to mid-15th century and invented the proprietary glazed terra cotta technique that became associated with the family’s name.

Upon Luca’s death, his nephew and collaborator Andrea (1435-1525) inherited the business. By the early 16th century, one of Andrea’s sons, Giovanni, became head of the workshop, producing works such as Resurrection, notable for their bold color effects, highly energetic sculpting, and spatially complex compositions.

Prosperous silk merchants, winemakers, and patrons of the arts, the Antinori family commissioned Giovanni around 1520-25 to create a work for their estate outside Florence.

Scholars are uncertain as to precisely where the completed Resurrection was to be displayed; but its arched (or lunette) shape suggests a placement over a door or gate, perhaps in an entry area, or given its subject, in the family chapel. The work remained on the estate until 1898, when the family sold it to Aron Augustus Healy, the board president of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (which later became the Brooklyn Museum), who gave it to the fledgling institution.

The eminent biographer Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists had high praise for the della Robbia workshop’s glazed terra cottas, describing them as “a useful, new, and very beautiful art.”

A hallmark of the della Robbia workshop, a lush and colorful garland of fruits, flowers, and plants, signifying a transition from nature to the sacred, encloses the entire sculpture group. Carefully naturalistic birds, snails, and other small creatures are tucked among the various flora, animating the scene while imparting a decorative charm.

The sculpture’s extensive symbolic program, in which the meaning of these plants and animals would have been familiar to the patron, also heightens its visual power, and connects it to the central themes of rebirth, renewal, and immortality. Pine cones, evergreens, gourds, and pomegranates are all apt symbols of new life; plentiful and ripe grapes allude to the wine the disciples drank at Christ’s Last Supper, but may also refer to the Antinori family’s vineyards.

In the lower left corner (on Christ’s favored right side), a blooming fruit tree represents Paradise and the world’s regeneration through Christ’s sacrificial death. There is a naturalistic vignette of an eagle killing a snake just above the Antinori emblem, signifying Christ’s triumph over Satan.

Giovanni, like many Renaissance artists, venerated ancient Greek and Roman art, which provided forms and motifs that inspired his artwork. This all’antica style is manifested in the arrangement of full and half-figures within the tight yet balanced space of the Resurrection lunette, suggesting that Giovanni made a close study of the densely figured compositions that he carved in high relief on the sides of Roman sarcophagi.

While the proportions of the figures appear incorrect (perhaps indicating their contrasting distances from the central figure of Christ), the twisting bodies and emotional expressions of the black-bearded soldier and his younger comrade holding a lance quote the famous Laocoön group, an ancient sculpture excavated in Rome in 1506 (in Michelangelo’s presence). The form-hugging cuirasses of two soldiers are patterned in the ancient Roman style.

Christ, surrounded in a radiant mandorla and a halo, stands atop the tomb from which he has risen in a subtle contrapposto, further evidence of Giovanni’s acquaintance with Greco-Roman statuary, as well as the works of his contemporaries who emulated it.

The bountiful garland in Resurrection, heavy with realistic fruit and vegetation, is an additional nod to antiquity. Ancient Roman mosaics and frescos depicting fruit baskets communicated abundance and hospitality, themes embedded in this work, and personified by Christ and the Antinori patron (portrayed somewhat larger than Christ) kneeling in prayer close by.

Visitors must lift their eyes to take in the wide lunette comfortably. One does not merely look at della Robbia’s Resurrection, but rather enters into his richly colored vision of faith and salvation. We want to eat the fruit, smell the flowers, and receive the blessing Christ gives with his right hand.

We are not in the realm of the demure and tender della Robbia Madonnas, whose flawless complexions and downcast eyes are familiar to admirers of his religious art. This is a muscular work offering a glimpse of abundance and hope by an artist who chose to do something new, useful, and gloriously beautiful.

Pamela A. Lewis is a member of Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, in New York City. She writes on topics of faith.


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