The Raising of Lazarus (from the Maestà) by Duccio

Duccio

The Raising of Lazarus (from the Maestà), 1310–11, Tempera and gold on panel, 43.5 x 46.4 cm, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, APx 1975.01, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas / Art Resource, NY

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'Take Away the Stone'

Individual Commentary
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.

 

References

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)