It depicts Jesus Christ, newly risen from the dead after being crucified, and it alludes to the moment in the Bible when Mary Magdalene meets him and (not recognising him) believes him to be the gardener. The original title of this painting is in French, Le Christ Jardinier, which means Christ the Gardener. This is because Manet himself was French. He was born in Paris in 1832 and he died in the same city in 1883, meaning that Christ as a Gardener was painted during the mid point of his career as an artist.
At first glance, Christ as a Gardener looks like a more realistic version of a medieval religious icon. It depicts the head and shoulders of Christ, with his traditional flowing dark hair and beard. A ray of light silhouetting Christ's head suggests divinity, again drawing on traditional artistic codes that have been used in depictions of Christian saints and of Christ since the earliest times. Te body of Christ dominates the canvas, but behind him the view can just make out some suggestions of the natural world. Unlike the figure of Christ itself, which is depicted in a manner that is in many ways typical of nineteenth century realism, the natural beauty behind him is more abstract. Manet has simply used broad strokes of light blue and green colour to suggest verdant surroundings and a clear sky.
The wooden pole that Christ carries at first evokes the cross, as he is seen holding the cross at the same slanted angle in depictions of the crucifixion. This evocation is no doubt deliberate on Manet's part, but when the viewer's gaze travels up the pole they quickly see that he is in fact holding a kind of hoe or scythe. This may in itself have allegorical significance - has Christ come to harvest human souls? In short, Christ as a Gardener is a very rich work of art. It is rich in a tonic sense as Manet has deployed wonderfully vivid colours to depict Christ. It is also allegorically rich as it draws on a long tradition of religious symbolism that Manet evokes in a way that reminds the viewer of it without them necessarily being immediately conscious of the way in which the painting is working on them. This is not Manet's only painting of Christ: he returned to the theme throughout his career.