Friday, April 09, 2010

The Death of Adam

Piero della Francesca ca.1422-1492
The Death of Adam
c. 1452
Fresco, 390 x 747 cm
San Francesco, Arezzo

Piero della Francesca`s major work is a series of frescos on the Legend of the True Cross in the choir of San Francesco at Arezzo (c. l452-c. l465).

The story is drawn from Jacopo de Voragine's "Golden Legend": the wood from the Garden of Eden became the Cross on which Christ was crucified.

Part of the complex story provides that Adam, on his deathbed, sends his his son Seth to the Archangel Michael, who gives him some seedlings from the Tree of Knowledge to be placed in his father's mouth at the moment of his death.

The tree that grows on the patriarch's grave is chopped down by King Solomon and its wood, which could not be used for anything else, is thrown across a stream to serve as a bridge.

On the right, the ancient Adam, seated on the ground and surrounded by his children, sends Seth to Archangel Michael.

The scene is distressing. Two young men watch in distress the death of the first man.

In the background we see the meeting between Seth and Michael, while on the left, in the shadow of a huge tree, Adam's body is buried in the presence of his family. All three stages of the story are placed within the same background landscape.

In the First Letter to the Corinthians (Ch. 15) and his Letter to the Romans (Ch. 5), St Paul posits the contrast between the first Adam, who initiated the whole story of human sin and the new Adam, who has brought the blessings of grace and eternal life.

In the second century St. Irenaeus developed the differences between the first and last Adam. By referring twice to Adam, an early liturgical text, the Exultet or Easter Proclamation ( sung at the Easter Vigil) implies Christ’s role as the second or new Adam.

In his hymn Crux Fidelis (“faithful cross”), Venantius Fortunatus (died ca. 610) links the tree of life with the tree of death in the great drama of creation, fall and redemption.

The preface for the feast of the Holy Cross declares, “Death came from a tree, life was to spring from a tree.”

In his Easter Vigil homily in Saint Peter's Basilica on Holy Saturday, 3 April 2010, Pope Benedict XVI referred to another legend involving Adam.

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,

An ancient Jewish legend from the apocryphal book “The life of Adam and Eve” recounts that, in his final illness, Adam sent his son Seth together with Eve into the region of Paradise to fetch the oil of mercy, so that he could be anointed with it and healed.

The two of them went in search of the tree of life, and after much praying and weeping on their part, the Archangel Michael appeared to them, and told them they would not obtain the oil of the tree of mercy and that Adam would have to die.

Later, Christian readers added a word of consolation to the Archangel’s message, to the effect that after 5,500 years the loving King, Christ, would come, the Son of God who would anoint all those who believe in him with the oil of his mercy.

“The oil of mercy from eternity to eternity will be given to those who are reborn of water and the Holy Spirit. Then the Son of God, Christ, abounding in love, will descend into the depths of the earth and will lead your father into Paradise, to the tree of mercy.”

This legend lays bare the whole of humanity’s anguish at the destiny of illness, pain and death that has been imposed upon us.

Man’s resistance to death becomes evident: somewhere – people have constantly thought – there must be some cure for death.

Sooner or later it should be possible to find the remedy not only for this or that illness, but for our ultimate destiny – for death itself. Surely the medicine of immortality must exist. Today too, the search for a source of healing continues. Modern medical science strives, if not exactly to exclude death, at least to eliminate as many as possible of its causes, to postpone it further and further, to prolong life more and more.

But let us reflect for a moment: what would it really be like if we were to succeed, perhaps not in excluding death totally, but in postponing it indefinitely, in reaching an age of several hundred years? Would that be a good thing? Humanity would become extraordinarily old, there would be no more room for youth. Capacity for innovation would die, and endless life would be no paradise, if anything a condemnation.

The true cure for death must be different. It cannot lead simply to an indefinite prolongation of this current life. It would have to transform our lives from within. It would need to create a new life within us, truly fit for eternity: it would need to transform us in such a way as not to come to an end with death, but only then to begin in fullness.

What is new and exciting in the Christian message, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, was and is that we are told: yes indeed, this cure for death, this true medicine of immortality, does exist. It has been found. It is within our reach. In baptism, this medicine is given to us. A new life begins in us, a life that matures in faith and is not extinguished by the death of the old life, but is only then fully revealed. ...

[T]he cure for death does exist. Christ is the tree of life, once more within our reach. If we remain close to him, then we have life. Hence, during this night of resurrection, with all our hearts we shall sing the alleluia, the song of joy that has no need of words."