Paul Griffiths’s The Tomb Guardians

Antiquity brings to mind a jigsaw puzzle, and the work of a writer, whether historian or novelist, is like the jigsaw enthusiast who must assemble the fragments to establish a complete picture. The analogy is quickly strained as there is neither a pre-established image to use as a guide, nor would each puzzle maker agree on the final picture. Antiquity is perhaps better perceived as a palimpsest in which each interpreter removes older surfaces to present a different picture.

In The Tomb Guardians, Paul Griffiths enters into a dialogue with German artist Bernhard Strigel’s renaissance paintings of the four Roman soldiers assigned to guard the rock-cut tomb of Jesus Christ. Jewish tradition forbade burial within a city’s walls, and the gospel of Matthew introduces the figures of the guards to perhaps counter any claims that Jesus’ body had been removed by his disciples.

It’s a commonplace story interpreted many years after the event in different ways in each of the gospels with added detail from the apocryphal gospels.The attraction of this book comes not from the familiar story, but the performance of the story. Griffiths gives voice to the guards and to an academic preparing a lecture about Strigel’s paintings, taking a familiar tale and revealing inspired variations of it, to elevate something commonplace into both a perfectly composed exploration of human frailty, and some of the finest art criticism I’ve encountered.

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