The Stammheim Resurrection (illumination, c. 1170) – explained

The Paul Getty Museum, MS. 64, fol. 111 – the Stammheim Missal.
This missal (religious service book) was written and decorated in the monastery of Saint Michael at Hildesheim in northern Germany, probably completed c. 1170.

The composition for Easter Sunday depicts the Resurrection. A few text-banners explain what we are seeing.

At the centre is the gospel story itself: Two women at Jesus’ tomb wonder “Who will roll away the stone?”1. An angel, sitting on the stone, tells them: “Jesus whom you seek is not here, but risen” 2. Cf. Mark 16:6

Christ is already atop of the sepulchre and is involved in a dialogue with the ‘Unseen’ God on top of the page. The causa efficiens of Christ’s resurrection is revealed: God did command him to rise: “Arise, my glory”3 he says (Psalm 56:8, a ‘morning Psalm’). Christ answers, reciting the closing line of the same verse: ” I will arise at daybreak.”4 Traditionally this exchange was interpreted allegorically , i.e. suggesting a hidden spiritual meaning, referring to – in this case – the Resurrection. The resonance/association is caused by the fact that the rising of the Son coincides with Sunrise: ‘Morning has broken, like the first morning…’

  • At the left the guards are pictured, asleep or unconscious.
  • At the right, we see Isaiah pointing to the empty grave. His scroll is inscribed with a passage from his own prophecy about the ‘tree of Jesse’, standing as an ensign to the nations, and “his tomb shall be glorious”5 (Isaiah 11:10).

In the corners of this composition four Old Testament scenes can be seen, all referring to Christ’s triumph over Death. This imagery can be found in many ‘biblia pauperum’ and stained glass windows etc…

  • At the upper right we see Samson (look at his hair!) carrying off the gates of Gaza (Judges 16 :3), prefiguring Christ destroying the gates of hell, and liberating the souls of the worthy heroes of faith predating Christ’s birth (they were waiting form him in the limbus patrum). The ‘descensus ad inferos’ has captured the imagination…
  • At the lower right David is killing Goliath (1 Kings 17:51) also typifying Christ’s triumph over death through his Resurrection.
  • At the lower left we see a man slaying a lion. Not Samson (he has stylish hair and a trimmed beard). Probably a less known fighting-hero is meant: Benaiah, who once slew a lion in a pit (2 Samuel 23 :20). Whoever or whatever: allegorically this kind of scene depicts Christ conquering Death. A Lion can be a symbol of Christ (the “Lion of Judah”, present on the next page in this Missal (picture see infra), but also a ‘ferocious and dangerous animal’, depending on the contex. BTW: Hercules slaying the Nemean lion would also fit the image. And as a matter of fact: his ‘labours’ were interpreted along similar lines, i.e. allegorically.
  • At the upper left Elisha is raising the son of the Shunammite from the dead (2 Kings 4:8-36)

FInally: at the bottom centre of the page (in a floral vignette) we see a bird. I think it’s a phoenix (but the Pelican also crossed my mind, ‘feeding his chicks with his own blood’, as the legend has it). Medieval treatises on animals (bestiaria) attributed spiritual (symbolic) meaning to all kinds of (real and mythical) creatures. The phoenix rising from its ashes seemed an unequivocal ‘preaching’ of Christ’s rising from the Death.

Dick Wursten, Easter 2024

P.S. Below, the illuminated page with its opposite page, where the Lion of Judah is pictured. On the text banner: “The lion from Juda’s tribe has conquered” 6 (Apoc 5:5). The illumination looks abstract (square/circle) but in fact it’s the Initial “D” of the opening prayer of the Easter Mass: “Deus qui hodierna die per unigenitum tuum æternitatis nobis aditum devicta morte reserasti, vota nostra quae praeveniendo aspiras, etiam adiuvando prosequere.7

  1. Quis revolvet nobis lapidem
  2. Jesum quem quaeritis non est hic
  3. Exurge gloria mea
  4. Exurgam diluculo
  5. Erit sepulchrum eius gloriosum
  6. Vicit leo de tribu Juda
  7. God who this day opened for us the entrance to eternity through your Only-begotten, because death has been conquered: Grant that our prayers – inspired by your prevenient grace – will by your aid as well come to effect.