The Rich Man is hunched naked amidst the flames of hell, looking up at paradise where the once poor Lazarus is sheltered in Abraham’s bosom. The image is graphic like a comic book illustration. It even has a speech bubble, with (in medieval Greek), the Rich Man’s invocation: ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame’ (Luke 16:24). As if to clarify—perhaps for those medieval viewers unable to read—the Rich Man sticks out his tongue and touches it with his index finger.
It is not difficult to imagine a medieval audience quietly chuckling with Schadenfreude at the fate that has befallen this arrogant representative of the economic elite.
The painting is part of the rendering of paradise and hell in a cycle of the Last Judgement in a church in the small town of Kritsa on eastern Crete. Countless such wall paintings were made across the length and breadth of Crete in the fourteenth century, material testimony to the wealth generated on the island during the period when it was a dominion of Venice. Crete was an important way-station on Venice’s trade routes to the Middle East and the Venetians stimulated agriculture and the exploitation of natural resources such as wood and salt, shipping Cretan commodities to the far corners of Europe. The income of this trade appears to have trickled down to towns and villages, where it was used to build and decorate churches.
Yet, despite this fair distribution of wealth, the message of the consequences of economic inequality embedded in the story of the Rich Man and the Poor Lazarus does not seem to have lost any of its potency in this representation.
Lymberopoulou, A. (ed.). 2020 [forthcoming]. Hell in the Byzantine World: A History of Art and Religion in Venetian Crete and Eastern Mediterranean, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Lymberopoulou, A. and D. Duits. 2020 [forthcoming]. Hell in the Byzantine World: A History of Art and Religion in Venetian Crete and Eastern Mediterranean, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Artwork Institution Details
Τα δικαιώματα επί του απεικονιζόμενου μνημείου ανήκει στο Υπουργείο Πολιτισμού και Αθλητισμού (ν.3028/2002) [© Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports (N.3028/2002)] Το μνημείο υπάγεται στην αρμοδιότητα της Εφορείας Αρχαιοτήτων Λασιθίου. Υπουργείο Πολιτισμού και Αθλητισμού-Ταμείο Αρχαιολογικών Πόρων και Απαλλοτριώσεων. [Hellenic Μinistry of Culture and Sports–Archaeological Resources Funds]
19 “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazʹarus, full of sores, 21who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; 23and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazʹarus in his bosom. 24And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazʹarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazʹarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, 28for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ 30And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.’ ”