Medieval Art

Holy Week in Art: Easter Explained in Paintings

Isla Phillips-Ewen 6 April 2023 min Read

To celebrate the Christian festival of Easter, here is the story of Holy Week and Easter explained in paintings.

Palm Sunday

Easter Explained in Paintings: File:Palm Sunday (Stained glass, Chester Cathedral).JPG
Stained glass window in Chester Cathedral cloister, Chester, UK.

Our “Easter Explained in Paintings” manual starts with Palm Sunday. The sixth Sunday in Lent marks the beginning of the Holy Week. It is the day that Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, on a donkey, while cheering crowds wave palm leaves.

Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, and Spy Wednesday

Easter Explained in Paintings
James Tissot, The Ointment of the Magdalene, c. 1900, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY,  USA.

Between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday, a variety of events are remembered. For example the anointing of Jesus at Bethany, Jesus’ predictions of his death, and the details of Judas’ betrayal (hence “spy” Wednesday).

Maundy Thursday

Easter Explained in Paintings:
Leonardo Da Vinci, The Last Supper, c.1490s, Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy.

Also known as Holy Thursday, this is the day when Christians commemorate the Last Supper that Christ shared with his disciples. The word maundy comes from the command (mandate) given by Christ at the Last Supper, that we should love one another. This moment was depicted by Leonardo da Vinci in his famous artwork Last Supper from the 15th century.

Easter Explained in Paintings: Pedilavium Collage by Marija Stojic | Saatchi Art
Marija Stojic, Pedilavium, 2019, Croatia.

Before supper, Jesus famously washes the feet of his followers (known as the Pedilavium), and during supper, he breaks bread and shares wine.

Easter Explained in Paintings: File:Giorgio Vasari - The Garden of Gethsemane - Google Art Project.jpg; Easter Explained in Paintings
Giorgio Vasari, The Garden of Gethsemane,  c.1570, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Japan.

Afterward, Jesus goes to spend the night praying in the garden of Gethsemane. He prays in distress and fear of the events to come. The disciples, who were meant to be waiting for him, fall asleep and leave their friend to suffer alone.

Easter Explained in Paintings: The Taking of Christ-Caravaggio (c.1602).jpg
Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, oil on canvas, c.1602, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

Next, armed men arrive in the garden to arrest Jesus. Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss. Just look at all the pressure and drama Caravaggio has managed to show by playing with contrasts of light and shadow.

Good Friday

Good Friday commemorates “the Passion”: the execution of Jesus by crucifixion. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor tries Jesus on the charge of treason.

Easter Explained in Paintings
Douglas Blanchard, Jesus before the priests, oil painting from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision, 2020. Qspirit.

Jesus is whipped and then given a crown of thorns, which was a way of mocking him for the claim to be the “King of the Jews.”

Easter Explained in Paintings
Still from The Passion of Christ, 2004, co-written and directed by Mel Gibson and starring Jim Caviezal as Jesus of Nazareth. Rapzilla.

Jesus then carries his cross to Calvary (or Golgotha), where he is then nailed to it beside two other criminals. The depiction of Jesus on the cross became known as crucifixion, you can recognize it as one of the most famous motifs in Christian art.

Easter Explained in Paintings: Christ of St John of the Cross
Salvador Dalí, Christ of St John on the Cross, 1951, oil on canvas, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland, UK.

After some hours soldiers check that Jesus is dead by stabbing him in the side. His body is then taken down and buried. Dali’s reinterpretation you see here is quite mysterious and somehow transcends this spiritual mysticism.


Easter Explained in Paintings
Fra Angelico, Frescoe in Dominican monastery at San Marco, c. 1440, Florence, Italy.

Good Friday is a day of mourning. Christians think about Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, and what this means for their faith.

Read more about Fra Angelico here.

Black Saturday

Also known as Holy Saturday, the Great Sabbath, and Easter Eve, this is technically the last day of Holy Week.

Easter Explained in Paintings: File:Cristo yacente Gregorio Fernandez.jpg
Gregorio Fernández, Jesus lying in the tomb, Monastery of San Joaquín y Santa Ana, Valladolid, Spain.

On this day Jesus’ body is in the tomb and his soul visits hell – the event known as the “Harrowing of Hell”. This is the time period between crucifixion and resurrection where Jesus descends to hell.

Easter Explained in Paintings
Michael Burghers, Harrowing of Hell, (1647/8–1727) published in Ancient Mysteries Described, 1823.

There are a lot of interesting interpretations of the life of Christ and saints in medieval art some of those weirder than others, just like this illustration by Michael Burghers.

Easter Day

This is one of the most important events in Christianity – the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are many depictions of that crucial moment in art, it was hard to choose one particular painting for our ‘Easter Explained in Paintings’ manual!

Easter Explained in Paintings: File:Rembrandt van Rijn - Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb - Google Art Project.jpg
Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb, 1638,  Royal Collection, London, UK.

In the morning the women go to the tomb of Jesus to prepare the body but find it empty. Angels tell them that Jesus has risen. The Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn shows us this moment, the woman, definitely not fully comprehending the news, seems shocked and even scared. We are yet to see the triumph Ressurection of Christ, and who if not Raphael to show all its glory!

Easter Explained in Paintings
Raphael, Resurrection of Christ, c.1499-1502,  São Paulo Museum of Art, São Paulo, Brazil.

The whole story of Easter, known as the Passion, is told in the four gospels of the bible (Mark 14-15, Matthew 26-27, Luke 22-23, and John 18-19). It’s also detailed by the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Roman historian Tacitus.

Easter Explained in Paintings: Christ the Redeemer statue, Rio de Janeiro.
Paul Landowski and Heitor da Silva Costa, Christ the Redeemer, 1931, Corcovado mountain, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Now, knowing what every single day of the Holy Week means to Christians in our “Easter Explained in Paintings” manual, you can celebrate Easter this way if you want, or just enjoy your holidays!


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