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).
Calvin, John, Gospel According to John. 1847. Trans. by William Pringle, available at https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom34.pdf