art, Easter, Jesus, Resurrection

Frank Answers About Jesus’ Easter Clothes

Question: If Jesus was stripped for crucifixion, and  his clothes were divided and taken by the soldiers, and his body was wrapped in linens after his death for a quick burial, and the linens were left in the tomb when he rose from the dead, where did he get clothes to wear when he greeted Mary Magdalene and the apostles?

Updated April 1, 2018

Good question. Of course, the truthful answer is that we don’t know. The gospel texts don’t tell us. I could leave my answer at that. But pondering the question further is a good exercise in biblical interpretation and exploration of Christian artistic imagination.

Since I wrote this answer more than a year ago, a book has appeared which helps to shed new light on Jesus’ physical appearance and attire. Joan E. Taylor, What Did Jesus Look Like? (London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2018) carefully reviews post-New Testament references to Jesus’ appearance in the context of the social history of the first century Palestinian and Roman worlds. I will integrate some of her findings into my article.

The Gospel of John says explicitly that Simon Peter “saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself” (20:6-7) when he went into the tomb to look around. So Jesus wasn’t wrapped in burial linens when he emerged from the tomb. We’re even assuming that Jesus was wearing something when he greeted people after his resurrection because, well, we can’t imagine him greeting people while naked, and because that’s the way the artists have portrayed him. However, he’s usually portrayed as wrapped in a toga-like garment after his resurrection rather than in the tunic and mantel we know he wore during his earthly ministry.

Let’s deal with several issues separately: first, Jesus’ nakedness in the resurrection; second, how he would have gotten something to wear; and third, what Jesus’ Easter (that is, post-resurrection) clothes might have been. Finally, we will consider the implication of Jesus’ Easter clothes for us.

First, did Jesus come forth from the tomb wearing anything? It is unlikely that he had a suit of clothes in the tomb because his tunic and mantel had been taken by the Roman soldiers in the execution squad. In the typical burial custom his body would have been laid naked on a slab and wrapped in a linen cloth.

Andrea Mantegna, Dead Christ, tempera on canvas, c. 1480 – 1500

So Michelangelo was surely correct to imagine in his statue of The Risen Christ (1521) that was placed in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva that Jesus emerged from the tomb nude. However, a century later a puritan pope had the genitals covered with a bronze drape that hangs improbably on the figure’s body, undoubtedly representing the linen cloths falling off his body.

However, there is an older version of The Risen Christ which  Michelangelo began in 1514. As he was finishing it he found an imperfection in the top of the marble block and put it aside, leaving it for a student to apply the finishing touches. This sculpture of Christ rising from the tomb was completely nude, like the later one that Michelangelo did finish; but it was not set up in a church and Christ’s genitals were never covered.

This early version of The Risen Christ shows a muscular, confident Jesus holding the burial linens in his left hand so as to make the point that he had no need of a covering. Indeed, St. Paul would say that Christ was clothed with a “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44), which does not mean his body was lacking corporeal reality (he was able to eat with his apostles).  As late as 1533 Michelangelo  drew a sketch of Christ rising from the tomb in all his corporeal vitality with the linen burial wrapping falling off.

But the question remains: did Jesus have something to put on when he greeted people? We assume he did only because we can’t imagine Christ being naked, even with a “spiritual body.”

In the 20th chapter of St. John’s Gospel Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Jesus in the garden but doesn’t recognize him at first and thought he was the gardener. The failure of the disciples to recognize the risen Christ at first is consistent in the post-resurrection stories in the gospels. In her grief Mary Magdalene might not have noticed if Jesus was naked; a gardener might have been stripped to a loin cloth for digging or hoeing. In any event, Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to hold on to him because he had not yet ascended to the Father. His commission to her was to tell the disciples that he was ascending to his Father and their Father.

In decorating the cells of the Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence, Fra Angelico and his assistants chose Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Christ as the subject for cell number one. In this depiction (designed by Fra Angelico but probably painted by his assistant Benozzo Gozzoli in 1440), Jesus carries a gardener’s hoe, suggesting that he has work to do. He is wearing a toga that has been tucked in at the waist but no tunic or undergarments.

In the Gospel of John Jesus’ resurrection and ascension occurred on the same day. This would suggest that all of Jesus’ appearances after his encounter with Mary  Magdalene was not only after his resurrection but also after his ascension.  So he wasn’t wandering around on earth but was appearing from heaven whenever he greeted the apostles and others. So he could have emerged from the tomb naked but was suitably clothed with heavenly attire when he met with his apostles and disciples.

But, second, if Jesus did have something to wear on the day of his resurrection when he greeted Mary Magdalene and the apostles, could someone have brought him a suitable garment? Throughout the passion stories people other than the chosen twelve disciples are taking care of his needs. Someone behind the scenes arranged for Jesus to procure a colt or donkey on which to ride into Jerusalem. Someone behind the scenes arranged for the upper room in which Jesus observed the Passover Seder with the twelve. We know the names of some of Jesus’s friends, admirers, and secret disciples from the four gospel narratives. There’s Mary and Martha and Lazarus of Bethany. There’s Joseph of Arimathea, who requested permission from Pontius Pilate to take down Jesus’s body from the cross and not have it left on the cross (as was Roman custom). He also provided the tomb. There’s Nicodemus, who had come to Jesus by night to discuss spiritual matters, and who provided the burial supplies. Did any of these people believe that Jesus would rise from the dead on the third day, as he had prophesied, and leave some garments in the tomb at the time of Jesus’ burial?  Did an angel bring something for Jesus to wear when the stone was rolled away? What about the young man in Mark’s Gospel who was sitting on the burial slab when the three women arrived early in the morning on the third day?

A painting depicting the Marys at the Sepulchre by Bartolomeo Schedoni from 1613-1614 now kept in the National Gallery of Parma.

In all four gospels someone is at the tomb to announce to the women who came early in the morning on the first day of the week to prepare the body for a proper burial, that Jesus had risen and gone ahead of them back to Galilee. In Matthew, there was a fearsome angel. In Mark, it was a young man in a white robe. Presumably this is the same young man who came out from the baths the night of Jesus’ arrest to see the commotion and lost his linen towel in the melee and ran off naked into the night. Commentators have assumed this is the evangelist. In Luke, there are two men in dazzling apparel. In John, Mary Magdalene, consumed by grief, goes alone to the tomb and sees two angels. Someone—man or angel—was present at the resurrection to announce it to those who came to the now empty tomb.

The angels tended to Jesus’ needs after his forty days of fasting in the wilderness. Could they—or the young man in the white robe in Mark’s Gospel—have brought Jesus new apparel as he continued his post-resurrection ministry on earth for a short time longer? Jesus had to reconcile with his failed disciples and give them a commission to go as his apostles into all the world with his gospel.  Surely, we think, he must have worn something when meeting with them.

Third, if he was provided with clothing, what kind of clothes would they have been? According the report of the crucifixion in the Gospel of John, after Jesus was stripped and hung on the cross, the soldiers in the execution squad divided his clothing (John 19:23-24). They cut his mantel or tallith (prayer shawl) and cast lots for his tunic since it was woven in one piece.  Joan Taylor argues that Jesus would have worn the ordinary garments of a Jewish male in first century Palestine. The tunic would have been made of light material that would slip over the head.  Pictures usually show Jesus in an ankle-length gown and tunic. Ankle-length tunics were worn by women and by men on public occasions. Long robes would not have worn by men when working at ordinary jobs or traveling by foot on the roads. Jesus’ tunic was more likely calf-length so that it wouldn’t drag. The mantel would probably have been made of wool to provide some warmth and was a large enough piece of cloth to wrap around the upper body. Taylor herself drew a sketch of what Jesus would have looked like in his ordinary clothing.

Since we are imagining that Jesus wore some covering after his resurrection, would he have continued to wear these ordinary men’s garments or something fancier and more festive to celebrate the new reality that dawned in the empty tomb? We tend to wear fancier clothing for festive celebrations. So artists are not wrong to portray the risen Jesus wearing something grander then the ordinary clothing he wore during his earthly ministry. The Italian artists in particular chose a toga. This was a large semi-circular fabric that was usually draped over one shoulder and wrapped around the body. It was not a very practical garment and was usually worn only for ceremonial occasions.  It might have been worn with a tunic, long or short. However, ancient paintings and sculptures of philosophers and gods show the toga being worn without a tunic. So that is how the artists portrayed Jesus.

In the painting above this article the risen Christ is draped in a toga without a tunic as an undergarment. This painting  was originally attributed to Bramante. In 1905 the art critic Suida suggested that the artist was Bartolomeo Suardi, a pupil of Bramante who was known as Bramantino. It is now considered to be one of Bramantino’s masterpieces. Mulazzini dated it to around 1490 in the last phase of the artist’s career.

A painting of the triumphant risen Christ comes from Ambrogio de Stefano Borgognone ca. 1510 in which Jesus wears a toga without a tunic.

In 2013 a painting of the risen Christ standing on the sealed tomb was identified as the work of the leading Venetian Renaissance artist Tiziano Vecelli, better known as Titian (c. 1488-1576), dated to about 1511. The large toga has been tucked in at the waist and could also be rolled up to expose the legs.

The portrayals of the risen Christ by these Italian Renaissance artists were undoubtedly inspired by statues of the ancient Greek and Roman gods, who are similarly loosely-attired in a toga. The Greek gods were also portrayed with long curly hair, which some artists have given to Jesus. Joan Taylor argues that the historical Jesus’ hair was probably cut shorter in the fashion of the first century and also kept his beard trimmed in the interest of hygiene (controlling lice). See her sketch above.

What Jesus might wear in heaven is a different matter. There has been a tradition of dressing the heavenly Christ in priestly robes for the celebration of the heavenly liturgy.

Icon_of_Christ,_Sergey_Radonezhsky_and_Evfimy_of_Suzdal

Icon of Christ the High Priest dressed in Byzantine bishop’s vestments by Sergey Radonezhsky and Evfimy of Suzdal

Likewise, in the ancient church the newly baptized emerged naked from the baptismal font as from a bath, which was often described as a tomb in the preaching of the church fathers, and were clothed in white tunics (albs) to take their place for the first time at the Eucharistic feast. Christian initiation came to be celebrated preeminently at the Easter Vigil. It may be in deference to the newly baptized putting on their new garments that the custom arose of Christians wearing new clothes to church on Easter Day. Can we see in the wearing of new clothes on Easter a renewal of our own Baptism as we gather “at the Lamb’s high feast?”

Wearing new clothes on Easter even became the opportunity for a procession. The origin of the famous Easter parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City was the procession of the members of Holy Communion Episcopal Church on Broadway who, under the leadership of their rector William A. Muhlenberg in the 1840s, brought Easter flowers to the indigent patients of St. Luke’s Infirmary, which the parish had founded. (Muhlenberg was one of the first to place flowers on the altar in American churches.) The congregation was sent from the Easter liturgy to serve the Lord and love their neighbors, bringing with them the joy and hope of the gospel of Christ as they paraded in their new Easter clothes (and bonnets!) with flowers and gifts to gladden the lives of the poor and the sick.  The idea of an Easter parade caught on and unfortunately, like many things, lost its original religious purpose as it became a major social event in New York and other cities.

Easter_parade_Fifth_Avenue_1899

Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City, 1899

We don’t seem to have Easter parades of people strolling down the street in their new Easter clothes, but maybe it’s an idea waiting to be revived for its original intent. We might conclude that Jesus had something new to wear when he came forth from the tomb. If so, that’s not without significance for us. If the risen Jesus had new  clothes to wear when he greeted people, we might also wear new clothes as we celebrate the new reality that dawned on the day of resurrection.

Pastor Frank Senn

Photo of an American family in Easter clothes in the 1950s

2 Comments

  1. Thomas Loy Bumgarner

    Was William Muhlenburg Henrik Melchoir Muhlenburg’s son or grandson?

    • Frank Senn

      William Augustus Muhlenberg (1796-1877) was a great-grandson of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711–1787, known as the patriarch of Lutheranism in America) and a grandson of Frederick Muhlenberg (1750–1801, a member of the First and Second Continental Congresses and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives). William became an Episcopalian as a boy and was later ordained a priest. He was a pioneer in education, urban ministry, and liturgical renewal and a significant figure in The Protestant Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. He is commemorated in the calendar of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer on April 8.

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