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?
Good question. Of course, the truthful answer is that we don’t know. The gospel texts don’t tell us. The Gospel of John says explicitly that Simon Peter “saw the linen wrappings lying there” when he went into the tomb to look around. So he 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 rather than the tunic and mantel he is usually portrayed as wearing during his earthly ministry. Let’s deal with these issues separately: first, Jesus’ nakedness in the resurrection; second, how he would have something to wear; and third, what Jesus’ Easter clothes might have been. Finally, we will consider the implication of Jesus’ Easter clothes for us.
First, Michelangelo was surely correct to imagine, in his sculpture of The Risen Christ (1521), to represent Jesus coming forth naked from the tomb; just as he was surely correct to imagine, in his mural of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, that we will all rise from the dead naked to appear before Christ the Judge, who is sitting naked on his throne. In the paradise restored of the heavenly kingdom there will surely be no need for modesty. In both cases later popes had Jesus’ genitals covered—a bronze cloth improbably attached to the sculpture of the The Risen Christ and a thin linen painted over Jesus’ groin in The Last Judgment.
However, there is an older version of The Risen Christ by Michelangelo which he 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 hold 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; he was not a ghost). As late as 1533 Michelangelo drew a sketch of Christ rising from the tomb in all his corporeal vitality (again with the linen burial wrapping falling off).
But the question remains: did Jesus have something to put on as 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 John Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Jesus in the garden but doesn’t recognize him at first and thought he was the gardener. In her grief she may not have noticed if Jesus was naked; a gardener might have been stripped to a loin cloth for work. In any event, Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to touch him, but a week later when he appeared a second time to the appostles behind closed doors Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wounds.
Second, if Jesus did have something to wear on the day of his resurrection, where would he have gotten clothing? 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, 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?
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 his needs after Jesus’s forty days of fasting in the wilderness after his baptism. Could they, who themselves needed no clothing—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 still had some work to do. He had to reconcile with his failed disciples and give them a commission as his apostles to go into all the world with his gospel. He must have worn something.
Third, if he was provided with clothing, what 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. These would have been very ordinary garments for a Jewish male in first century Palestine. The tunic would have been made of light material that would slip over the head. It was probably knee-length rather than ankle-length. 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.
Since we are imagining that Jesus wore some covering after his resurrection, would he have continued to wear these ordinary Jewish working man’s garments or something fancier and more festival to celebrate the new reality? We decorate our bodies with 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.
In the painting above this article the risen Christ is draped in a toga. This painting that was in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in Milan had been the subject of various studies in which it was attributed either to Bramante or Bramantino. Müller Walde and the authors of the earlier catalogues of the collection attributed it to Bramante. It was Suida in 1905 who first 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 similar painting of the triumphant risen Christ comes from Ambrogio de Stefano Borgognone ca. 1510 in which Jesus wears a toga without a tunic undergarment.
Likewise, the risen and ascended Christ in the mosaic above the entrance to St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice is also arrayed in a colorful toga.
There has also been a tradition of dressing the heavenly Lord in priestly robes and the redeemed saints in white robes as they all celebrate the heavenly liturgy and attend the marriage feast of the Lamb.
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, 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. The solemn celebration of 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.
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. So here’s another little incident, although not in the gospels but something that has to be concluded from the gospel accounts, that is not without potential significance for us. If Jesus had new Easter 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
Easter parade on New York City’s Fifth Avenue in 1899
Image above post: “The Risen Christ” by Bramantino, c. 1490