The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.” Matthew 28:5-6
I like to think of this painting as Evelyn De Morgan’s Spiritualist response to the traditional Christian symbol of the empty tomb, particularly at Easter. Hers could be the same tomb in which Jesus’ body was laid to rest following his brutal crucifixion, before he rose on the third day, rolled away the stone and walked away, leaving the tomb empty for his followers to discover. I imagine this playing out in another opening to this tomb in her 1893 painting, ‘Life and Thought’ just out of sight, as simultaneously we are presented with the emergence of the human spirit, not the physical body.
Both Christians and Spiritualists believe in the immortal soul, a spirit in each person which transcends the body and is emancipated upon death.
Most artists, and particularly those dealing with the resurrection, depict Christ in human form leaving his empty tomb on Easter Sunday. The great Venetian Old Master, Titian for example, chose this dramatic scene when grieving Mary Magdalen first sees Christ’s body again on Easter Sunday. SHe reaches out to touch him, but Christ responds, ‘Do not touch me’ (in Latin, noli me tangere, the title of the picture) as they must appreciate his physical body is gone, leaving only the Holy Ghost (John 20: 14–18).
De Morgan has perhaps dealt with the onward journey of the soul to utopia, rather than using the human form of Christ to present life everlasting. She is more interested in the Swedenborgian notion of the onward journey of a human soul, rather than a more Christian continuation.
In her painting, Life, a powerful knight, and Thought, a learned, classically draped scholar, leave the tomb not with the body back to earth, the way it was brought in, but onward. Welcomed by a flamboyant peacock, the symbol of eternity and beauty and a band of angels who encourage their progression with ecstacy towards the eternal city, bathed in gold on the horizon, Life and Thought emerge from the tomb, triumphant.
Scholars have not interpreted the obvious Christian iconography of the empty tomb before, rather the focus has been on Tennyson’s poem ‘The Deserted House’, a stanza of which accompanied this painting when it was first displayed at the New Gallery in London before being displayed at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, who purchased it it in 1901. It reads:
“Life and Thought have gone away,
Side by side…
…for Life and Thought
Here no longer dwell:
But in a city glorious –
A great and distant city – have bought
A mansion incorruptible.”
Evelyn De Morgan held Christian beliefs and was also a practicing Spiritual medium, who believed that the human soul could contact this earth. With her husband, William, she anonymously published a volume of automatic spirit writings in 1909 entitled The Result of an Experiment. In it, angels contacted her and described the joy of eternal life. She always presented death therefore as hopeful, as looking beyond what is known and what is material to the spirit world beyond.
I am confident that you can see the hopeful message of a better life on the horizon in this painting, and it will provide some comfort for you over this particularly difficult Easter.
Sarah, De Morgan Curator
With thanks to The Walker Art Gallery and the National Gallery for the use of their images.