‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’
‘Take Away the Stone’
Commentary by Piers Baker-Bates
The raising of Lazarus is the culminating miracle of Christ’s earthly ministry.
It is probable, therefore, that this small panel was the final scene of the rear predella of the two-sided, many-panelled altarpiece that once adorned the high altar of Siena cathedral. The ensemble was commissioned from Duccio by the city of Siena in 1308. This panel was on the side that would have been visible to the clergy alone and showed the lives of Christ and the Virgin in forty-three episodes.
Though tiny in relation to the whole, the panel reveals all the most dramatic facets of the miracle. It is a crowded composition, with no background to speak of. A group of figures press against and overlap the cave in order to witness the miraculous event. Christ alone stands out clearly from the crowd marked by a halo, the powerful gesture of his arm appearing to draw Lazarus forth. Behind him is Peter, while in front and in discussion with Christ is Martha, the dead man’s sister, while Lazarus’s other sister, Mary, kneels at Christ’s feet.
Lazarus is just emerging from a cave tomb still wrapped in his grave clothes like a mummy. Indeed, so tightly is he bound in these that it is astonishing he can even move. Their tightness may evoke (as it did for Patristic commentators on this episode) the paralysing constriction of sin from which Jesus will unbind all who are resurrected (Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.13.1).
The worn paint layer, bottom right, reveals that Duccio had altered the composition from a horizontal tomb to the current format. This brings his depiction closer to the biblical account—‘the tomb … was a cave, and a stone lay upon it’ (v.38)—and accentuates the drama of Lazarus’s appearance. Fidelity to the Gospel account is also seen in the figure immediately by the entrance covering his nose and mouth, Martha having said to Jesus: ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odour, for he has been dead four days’ (v.39). This stench of putrefaction is proof to the crowd, as to us, that Lazarus had died in truth; this is not ‘fake news’.
Death’s grip proves weaker than it seemed. Life has the last word.
Elowsky, Joel C. (ed.). 2007. John 11–21, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament, 4b (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press), pp. 30–32
Irenaeus. Against Heresies. 1885. Trans. by Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, ed. by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing)
‘Lazarus, Come Out’
Commentary by Piers Baker-Bates
This vast altarpiece was commissioned from Sebastiano del Piombo in 1517 and intended for the southern French cathedral of Narbonne (supposed to hold relics of Saint Lazarus). It was to be partnered with a Transfiguration by Raphael, thus illustrating Christ’s final two miracles on earth, a common juxtaposition. The Christ who shines with divine light in the transfiguration demonstrates here that he shares the divine power of the Creator.
Christ’s mouth is open as he addresses the dead man: ‘Lazarus, come out’ (v.43). There is, however, no sign of the cave described in the Gospel. Instead the gigantesque Lazarus appears to have risen from a tomb in the ground, on which he now sits.
The altarpiece is not all Sebastiano’s own work. Michelangelo had provided a drawing for the figure of Lazarus, and probably for the figure of Christ also, which explains the disjuncture in size of the figures. Even if Lazarus is out of scale this central group is immensely powerful, as, besides their gestures, the turning movements of Christ and of Lazarus parallel each other in an almost balletic movement.
Peter and Mary kneel before Christ in awe of the miraculous event, Peter’s hands clasped in prayer. Martha, in contrast, stands back from Christ raising her hands in amazement, while behind her a group of women cover their noses at the stench. These three figures are used by the artists to show a diversity of audience reaction to the miraculous occurrence. Sebastiano includes a further detail from the Gospel, as in the left background a group of Jews and Pharisees discuss the miracle that has just occurred. The background itself, however, is not Judaea but Rome and several recognizable classical monuments are visible.
Christ’s summons to ‘come out’ draws Lazarus from his grave clothes as much as his burial place. Some he almost tears off himself in response to Christ’s words while other figures help him with the remainder. Sebastiano’s transposition of the miracle to the banks of the Tiber creates what was perhaps intended as a parallel between Christ’s own power and that of the Pope: the power to bind and to loose (Matthew 18:18).
‘Unbind Him and Let Him Go’
Commentary by Piers Baker-Bates
This triptych incorporates its donors (the Micault family) into the scene of the raising of Lazarus. It was originally painted in the late 1540s for the altar of Saint Lazarus in the Holy Sacrament chapel in the Church of St Michael and St Gudula (now the Cathedral) in Brussels, the burial place of Charles V’s collector general, Jean Micault. The agglomeration of buildings in the background includes recognizable monuments to the imperial triumphs of the Emperor Charles V, and particularly the Conquest of Tunis. Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen was working contemporaneously on tapestries in celebration of these victories.
When closed, the grisaille outside panels taken together show an earlier episode in the Lazarus story, with Jesus arriving at the house of Martha and Mary. When the triptych is opened, like the grave in the biblical account, Lazarus is revealed: alive. Micault kneels on the left wing and his wife, Livine Cats van Welle, on the right, in adoration of the miracle.
In the central panel, the composition is rather compressed, the crowd is reduced to a few figures, and Christ stands in a curiously static pose at the right of Lazarus’s grave. The grave is made dramatically central and offers a diagonal thrust for the viewer’s eye into the heart of the composition where, as he rises from it, Lazarus looks towards his Saviour. It is Lazarus rather than Christ who dominates the scene.
A number of details are instantly recognizable—the figures with the hands over their faces, for example—but others are new. In particular, the child in the foreground is unusual. Is he celebrating the miracle or turning away in horror? Why is he unclothed? It seems possible that his presence might signal something about ‘the resurrection and the life’ (v.25) which Christ’s miracle proclaims: his infancy asserting vitality, and his nakedness displaying innocence. In Christian theology, as in baptismal liturgy, the restoration of both is promised to those who die and rise with Christ. We must ‘become like children’ (Matthew 18:3) to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
The painted donors have crosses in their hands, indicating they are already dead. This small detail gives the triptych’s choice of subject, with its implicit hope of future resurrection, a whole new power.
The Raising of Lazarus, from the Maestà, 1310–11 , Tempera and gold on panel
Sebastiano del Piombo incorporating designs by Michelangelo Buonarroti :
The Raising of Lazarus, 1517–19 , Oil on canvas, transferred from wood
Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen and Carl Bloch :
The Micault Triptych (Triptych of the Micault Family), c.1539–59 , Oil on panel
A Lively Image of Our Future
Commentary by Piers Baker-Bates
The Raising of Lazarus is the climacteric proof of Christ’s ministry and message. In it, he shows that he has the power to raise the dead to life, while prefiguring his own imminent resurrection which will open a salvific passage to eternal life for the whole human race. The stone that sealed the cave in which we were all confined—in our mortality, in our sin—is taken away.
Lazarus’s significance to the Church extended beyond his role in the miracle itself. From the early Church onwards, he was numbered among the saints (thought in Catholic tradition to have been consecrated the first Bishop of Marseilles), and churches and chapels were dedicated to his cult. Two of the three paintings in this exhibition were created for very specific, Lazarus-centred, devotional contexts.
Outside such contexts, however, the raising is rarely depicted as a subject in visual art, especially as a stand-alone scene. But this fact—and the fact that the miracle is recounted in only one Gospel, that of John—should not be allowed to obscure its major theological implications.
The miracle of the Raising of Lazarus constitutes the last of the so-called seven signs, or miracles, that form the second section of John’s Gospel. These are the only miracles that John recounts. Meanwhile, Jesus’s declaration in verse 25, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’, is part of another set of seven: it is the fifth of his seven ‘I am’ statements in that Gospel (6:35, 48, 51; 8:12; 9:5; 10:7, 9, 11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1). The echo of God’s words to Moses in Exodus 3:14 (‘say … “I AM has sent me you”’) means that all of these ‘I ams’ can be read as implicit communications of Christ’s divinity, but in this one, Christ offers what is very nearly an explicit announcement, which he then goes to prove by raising Lazarus from the dead.
This raising may only be a foretaste of resurrection, as Lazarus will eventually die again. Nonetheless, just as Christ raises Lazarus from the dead so will Christ himself be raised by God the Father and we ourselves by Christ. Christ’s action in this episode has for this reason been interpreted as a foretaste of his Descent into Limbo, the so-called Harrowing of Hell, when it is not just Lazarus but many other sinners who will be saved. In this light, we are strongly encouraged to identify ourselves with Lazarus’s plight, and to rejoice in his liberation from death, for it is ours too. It is our bindings that will be loosed (as in Sebastiano del Piombo’s interpretation), however tightly they may be wound (as in Duccio’s).
All three artists make the public aspect of this miracle very clear by showing the large crowds that have gathered around Jesus, as well as emphasizing the role in the story that is played by the two sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. In all three works, too, the momentousness of the transaction between Jesus and Lazarus is made clear in the powerful and reciprocal gestures of the two central participants. A major difference though is that while Duccio has followed the Gospel account faithfully, both Sebastiano and Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen have allowed themselves artistic licence in placing the tomb upon the ground and thus allowing Lazarus to literally rise from the dead. Furthermore, both Sebastiano and Vermeyen include figures to the rear of their compositions who represent the Jewish authorities in John 11 who will later contribute to the events of Christ’s Passion.
The theological importance of this event in the Christian story is illustrated in the fact that this miracle remained of equal significance to both Catholics and to Protestant Reformers. It was John Calvin who wrote in his Commentary on the Gospel of John: ‘not only did Christ give a remarkable proof of his divine power in raising Lazarus, but he likewise placed before our eyes a lively image of our future resurrection’ (Pringle 1847: 347). These works of art do the same, inviting us to receive Jesus as Martha does, who on this occasion (by contrast with Luke 10:38–42) models the better response: ‘Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world’ (John 11:27).
Pringle, William (Trans.). 1847. John Calvin: Gospel According to John, available at https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom34.pdf