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).
11 Now a certain man was ill, Lazʹarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazʹarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.”
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazʹarus. 6So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go into Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were but now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any one walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10But if any one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11Thus he spoke, and then he said to them, “Our friend Lazʹarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazʹarus is dead; 15and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazʹarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary sat in the house. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”
28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying quietly, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32Then Mary, when she came where Jesus was and saw him, fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; 34and he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus wept. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb; it was a cave, and a stone lay upon it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. 42I knew that thou hearest me always, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that thou didst send me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazʹarus, come out.” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”