The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo incorporating designs by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1981)

Sebastiano del Piombo incorporating designs by Michelangelo Buonarroti

The Raising of Lazarus, 1517–19, Oil on canvas, transferred from wood, 381 x 289.6 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bought 1824, NG1, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

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‘Lazarus, Come Out’

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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).

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