Why Seek Ye the Living Among the Dead [Resurrection Morning], 1886. Oil, gesso, and gold leaf on canvas, 51 x 661/2 inches (129.8 x 168.8 cm). Collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, accession no. 8537.

Decorated initial T

he story of the Three Marys at the Tomb comes from Luke, Chapter 24, verse 5, “And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead?” The presence of the angel, rather than two men at the sepulchre, is referred to in Matthew, Chapter 28, verses 2-7. Stanhope exhibited this work at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886. It is a replica of one of the twelve panels he painted for The Ministration of Angels on Earth for the Chapel of St. Michael and All Angels at Marlborough College in Wiltshire between 1875-79. Stanhope reworked these panels in 1885-87 after G. F. Bodley rebuilt the original chapel that had been erected by architect Edward Blore. Stanhope’s panels were placed between the North and South windows of the chapel. This was not Stanhope’s first commission for Marlborough College as he had previously painted panels between 1874-75 of the east end reredos with figures of angels playing musical instruments. The later commission was for a series of panels whose theme was the intervention of the angels on earth, from the expulsion from the Garden of Eden to the Resurrection.

Left: The Marlborough College Chapel. Right: Roses and one of the Maries. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Stanhope painted six stories from the Old Testament and six from the New Testament, all panels in tempera of approximately 531/8 x 681/2 inches (135 x 174 cm). Stanhope’s murals were not uniformly praised as Fiumara points out: “As soon as the whole series was displayed inside the chapel the pictures began to attract negative criticism for being less beautiful than expected. Critics complained of the lack of originality, unequal treatment of subjects, and graceless and disproportionate figures’ (77). The Marlburian complained that they were “the forms of Benozzo Gozzoli, here dashed with a conception that goes back to Giotto, there tinctured with an idea borrowed from Luini or Masaccio” (156). One of the major criticisms of the murals was the androgynous character of many of the figures. In April 1879 a critic for The Builder reported: “We should have preferred that English boys should see before them in a chapel something more manly than Mr. Spencer-Stanhope’s weak and superstitious sentimentalities.”

The subject of Why Seek Ye the Living Among the Dead is referred to as The Sepulchre in the Marlborough Chapel series. Fiumara believes it is

almost certainly the most successful of the Marlborough paintings. It depicts the three Maries who, very early in the morning, come unto the tomb of Christ bringing the spices and the unguents that they have prepared to annoint the body. They have just discovered that the body is not there any more…Splendour of composition and rhythmic beauty of posture characterize the whole scene. Both the linear treatment and the harmonies and the contrast of the chromatic scheme are singularly effective. Not only do they stress the decorative power of the painting, but also remarkably convey the very essence of the mystery of the resurrection. As in The Agony in the Garden, a delicate carpet of flowers has sprung up under the angel’s feet; and this, as emblematic of the joyful piece of news he is giving to the afflicted women, greatly strengthens both the beauty and the sentiment of a lovely and powerful painting. [220]

If one compares the painting exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886 to the mural version at the Marlborough Chapel the figures are handled in an identical fashion although the halos encircling the heads of the figures are treated differently. The backgrounds are also somewhat different. In the Marlborough version the background features just the rocky landscape behind the tomb with the rock that has blocked its entrance visible in the midground to the far left. Stanhope has added a rose bush to the midground in the Grosvenor painting to add to its decorative effects. The painting was not extensively reviewed when it was exhibited at the Grosvenor and failed to find favour even with those critics who chose to notice it. The Magazine of Art briefly mentioned: “Mr. Spencer Stanhope’s allegorical ‘Why Seek Ye the Living among the Dead?’ is on a larger scale, but is not so strong that it may not be faced and vanquished very summarily” (347).

Links to Related Material including details


“Current Art.” The Magazine of Art 9 (1886): 345-50.

“The Decoration of the Chapel.” The Marlburian 14 (October 22, 1879): 155-56.

Fiumara, Francesco. “The Ministration of Angels on Earth: Twelve Biblical Paintings by Spencer Stanhope.” The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies New Series 7 (Fall 1998): 74-96.

Fiumara, Francesco. “A Painter Hidden. John Roddam Spencer Stanhope: His Life, His Works, His Friends. The British Period: 1829-1880.” M.A. thesis. Universita’ Di Messina, Anno Accademico 1992-93.

Trumble, Angus. Love and Death in the Age of Queen Victoria. Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia. 2002.

Created 2 November 2004

Last modified 7 May 2022