Luke 7:11–17

The Widow of Nain

Commentaries by Moritz Lampe

Works of art by Carlo Naya, Veit Thiem and Unknown artist [Fratelli Bucciolini Company]

Cite Share

Unknown artist [Fratelli Bucciolini Company]

Photoceramic portrait of Pietro Testi, c.1888, Enamel pigments on porcelain, 12 x 8 cm [approx.], Cimitero delle Porte Sante, Florence; Photo: Courtesy of the author

Petrified Emotions

Commentary by Moritz Lampe

Cite Share

When little Pietro Testi died on 16 October 1888 at the age of ten, he left his mother Assunta Placci in tears—just like the woman of Nain. Having lost her husband the year before, she was still a mourning widow when she had to carry yet another family member to the Cimitero delle Porte Sante, the most prestigious cemetery of the city of Florence in Italy. Buried right beside the grave of his father, Pietro’s tombstone became the visual expression of her desperate grief and sorrow. Right above the inscription, which cites his name and describes the inconsolable pain of his mother, we can see a photographic portrait of the boy. Leaning against a stele, he looks at the beholder and is standing upright in front of a traditional photostudio setting which features an open landscape with trees.

As the signature by the feet of Pietro Testi tells us, this portrait was made by the Fratelli Bucciolini, one of the first companies to offer photoceramic portraits in Florence. After the invention of the technique in the 1850s, which allowed for the transfer of photographic images onto porcelain by using enamel pigments, they became increasingly fashionable in Italian cemeteries. Resisting time and weather without any difficulty, these portraits were almost unalterable and thus ideal for preserving a living memory of friends and family.

Engaging in intimate discussions or simply praying with the portraits of the deceased was considered a healthy practice and was recommended by Italian physiologists of the time. It was thought to help channel feelings of fear and desperation and was particularly advised for women, who were believed (and expected) to suffer from tragic losses more profoundly than men.

This perception of female grief was particularly strong in a Catholic country where the Virgin Mary was idealized as a role model: ‘a widowed mother for only sons’ (Ambrose, Exposition on Luke 5.92), she was considered a model of mourning, and it was suggested that the bereaved might address her directly in their prayers.

During the lifetime of Assunta Placci this divine model of female mourning was still exemplary and a photoceramic portrait of her son might have helped her to canalise her sorrow: Even though Pietro Testi never came back to life like the son of the widow of Nain, his portrait kept him present and assured him a place among the living.



Ambrose of Milan, Exposition on the Gospel of Luke. 1998. Trans. by T. Tomkinson, in Exposition of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke with Fragments on the Prophecy of Isias (Enta, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies)

Gioia, Rosaria. 2007. ‘Ritratto e memoria: l’impiego funerario della fotografia vetrificata’, in Memorie della grande guerra: le tombe dei caduti nel cimitero monumentale della Certosa di Bologna, ed. by Mirella Cavalli (Bologna: Minerva Edizioni), pp. 23–34

Veit Thiem

Epitaph of the Lewe Family, with the Resurrection of the Youth at Naim (Epitaph der Familie Lewe mit der Erweckung des Jünglings zu Naim), 1546, Oil on wood, 122 x 333 cm, University of Leipzig Art Collection; 1913:263, © University of Leipzig, Kustodie; Photo: Jens Friedrich

Death in Leipzig

Commentary by Moritz Lampe

Cite Share

In this painting by Veit Thiem, a follower of Cranach, the son of the widow of Nain has just risen from the dead. Sitting upright on his bier, the young boy looks at Christ. Escorted by his disciples, Christ has raised his right hand in a gesture of blessing while his left hand touches the bier. In the background of this prominent scene we can see populous funeral processions which leave the gates of two medieval cities. Not yet aware of the miracle that has just happened, men and women are accompanying the boy to his last resting place outside the city walls.

Following the Reformation in 1517, depictions of the son of the widow of Nain received new attention in the Protestant regions of Germany. As explained in his writing Ob man vor dem sterben fliehen möge (1527) Martin Luther disdained funerals inside church buildings and was in favour of a strict separation between the living and the dead, who were supposed to be buried in cemeteries outside the crowded cities. In this regard the episode of the widow of Nain was of paramount interest to him, because it illustrated the biblical tradition to bury extra muros.

The painting by Veit Thiem, which features the text of Luke 7:11–17 prominently below the bier of the son of the widow of Nain, shows how Luther’s ideas about a renewed separation between the living and the dead were adapted by artists. Commissioned around 1546, the painting served as a memorial epitaph for the Lewe, a wealthy Protestant family of cloth merchants from Leipzig whose members are portrayed in the foreground of the painting, where they devoutly witness the raising of the boy.

In this regard it is worth noting that the city with the prominent gate and towers in the left background represents an idealized version of the medieval topography of Leipzig. Used as a recognizable cityscape for early modern Saxons, the biblical account was thus transformed from an age-old episode which took place in a country far away into a miracle which happened right in front of the people from Leipzig. In doing so, the artist illustrated a modern Lutheran burial outside the city walls and reminded the faithful of Christ’s role as a destroyer of death and corruption.



Lampe, Moritz. 2009. Zwischen Endzeiterwartung und Repräsentation. Das Epitaph des Heinrich Heideck (1570–1603) aus der Leipziger Universitätskirche St Pauli (Leipzig: Plöttner), pp. 65–70

Carlo Naya

Archival photograph of Palma il Vecchio's Jesus and the Widow of Nain, c.1890, Albumen print mounted on cardboard, 20.3 x 25.9 cm, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut, Fotothek; Inv. Nr. 7587, Photo: Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut; Photographer: Stefano Fancelli

Candid Camera

Commentary by Moritz Lampe

Cite Share

In this painting by the Venetian painter Palma il Vecchio (1480–1528), Christ is surrounded by his disciples while raising his right hand in a gesture of teaching and looking at a pair of women to his right, who seem to look imploringly at the Saviour. The painting was traditionally thought to represent the encounter between Christ and the woman from Nain who lost her husband and thereafter her only son. Even though the biblical text does not suggest that she begged for a miracle, the scene was interpreted as showing the widow approaching Christ to ask for a resurrection—the resuscitation of her child.

But let’s have a closer look. Rather than directly gazing at a digital reproduction of the painting, what we see here is a historical photograph, which is in itself a work of art. Taken by the Italian photographer Carlo Naya (1816–1882), it was one of the first commercially available photographs to feature the isochromatic rendering of colours. Although still limited to black-and-white, this technique allowed for the authentic reproduction of pigments such as yellow, which up until then resulted in darkish tones on the photograph. It was thus possible to represent the photographed subject matter in a more accurate manner.

Around 1907 this photograph of Palma’s painting became part of the photographic collection of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence, where it was made available to scholars who could study the photograph of Palma’s work alongside other representations of the same subject. Partly on account of this close comparative examination of photographic reproductions, contemporary art historians now identify its subject with another episode from the New Testament: the woman from Cana, who implored Christ to heal her demon-possessed daughter (Matthew 15:22–29).

This makes better sense of the imploring looks of the women in the painting, for the woman of Cana believed in the healing power of Jesus and asked him to intervene in favour of her daughter.

The widow of Nain, meanwhile, was given a miracle without having asked for it. As Cyril of Alexandria observes, in this event of radical grace: ‘Christ draws near without being invited. No one summoned him to restore the dead man to life, but he comes to do so of his own accord’ (Commentary on Luke, Homily 36).



Cyril of Alexandria. Commentary on the Gospel of St Luke.1983. Trans. by R. Payne Smith (Long Island: Studion Publishers)

Rylands, Philip. 1988. Palma il Vecchio, l’opera completa (Milan: Mondadori), p. 293

Unknown artist [Fratelli Bucciolini Company] :

Photoceramic portrait of Pietro Testi, c.1888 , Enamel pigments on porcelain

Veit Thiem :

Epitaph of the Lewe Family, with the Resurrection of the Youth at Naim (Epitaph der Familie Lewe mit der Erweckung des Jünglings zu Naim), 1546 , Oil on wood

Carlo Naya :

Archival photograph of Palma il Vecchio's Jesus and the Widow of Nain, c.1890 , Albumen print mounted on cardboard

Life and Death Situations

Comparative commentary by Moritz Lampe

Cite Share

Among the many miracles that Christ worked in the New Testament, the resurrections are certainly the most spectacular. Be it the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1–44), the raising of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:21–43; Matthew 9:18–26; Luke 8:40–56) or, as in this case, the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, these episodes function as a prefiguration of Christ’s own resurrection three days after his crucifixion and burial. At the same time, they illustrate the power of Christ as a destroyer of death.

But what sets this resurrection episode apart from the others—where Christ was actively approached and asked to intervene by the people—is the unconditioned intervention of Christ. Without being asked he came closer, touched the bier, and saved the boy. Similar to the raising of the son of the widow of Zarephath through the prophet Elijah in the Old Testament (1 Kings 17:7–16), active faith is not made a condition for the miracle. God acts to save through the unlooked-for touch of a human body.

Given the central significance of eternal life and salvation in the Scriptures, it comes as no surprise that these notions endured the centuries and travelled through time and space. In the early modern age depictions of resurrections gave visual evidence to these religious beliefs and were frequently commissioned by patrons. These works of art had numerous functions. Put in private chapels or parochial churches, often in spatial proximity to their actual tombs, they served as a display of power and wealth for the patrons and their families, they evoked prayers for the deceased who were awaiting their bodily resurrection, and they provided a vital link between the living and the dead who formed a holy alliance, united by their faith in God. This might be one of the reasons why the painting of the woman from Cana by Palma il Vecchio ended up as being erroneously identified with the resurrection of the boy of Nain. It showed the intimate, even bodily connection between the faithful and the Saviour and underlined the power of divine grace and mercy.

In Protestant regions, where prayers and intercession for the dead were practically abolished, many artworks reinforced the role of Christ as the sole Saviour. Neither participation in good deeds nor the receiving of indulgences and prayers were considered soul-saving, but only faith in Christ (sola fide). As we have seen in the painting from Leipzig, Protestant depictions of the resurrection of the son of the widow of Nain thus often focus on the faith of their patrons. Additionally—as is shown by numerous paintings from the workshop of Lucas Cranach—they cite text passages from the New Testament, for the adherence to the authority of Scripture alone (sola scriptura) was one of the buttresses of faith in Christ alone.

With the dawn of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century and increasingly during the nineteenth century—which saw scientific progress alongside increased anticlerical tendencies—these religious patterns of understanding came to be viewed more critically. The empirical sciences conceptualized the soul as a neurophysiological artefact that ceased to exist with the death of the body. Any hope of a joyful reunion with the deceased on the Day of the Last Judgement was thus dismissed. In Italy, this process of rationalization and secularization led to a decline of Christian symbols and to an increasing attention to mundane emotions of sorrow, love, and affect when it came to the decoration of tombs. Rather than featuring biblical accounts of resurrections, they often focused on the individual feelings of the persons who were left behind—as we can see here in the case of Pietro Testi and his photoceramic tombstone.

Nevertheless the miracle of the resurrection of the boy of Nain through the touch of Jesus draws our attention to the importance of bodily contact and active stimulation of our senses, which have the power to provoke emotional response and physical reactions. His resurrection was not just a resurrection of a body, but a resurrection which was caused by a body. This corporeality of the miracle was central to its artistic and theological legacy and already emphasized by Cyril of Alexandria: ‘Why … did he not work the miracle by only a word but also touched the bier? It was, my beloved, that you might learn that the holy body of Christ is productive for the salvation of man. The flesh of the almighty Word is the body of life and was clothed with his might’ (Commentary on Luke, Homily 36).



Buchner, Moritz. 2018. Warum weinen? Eine Geschichte des Trauerns im liberalen Italien (1850–1915) (Berlin: De Gruyter)

Cyril of Alexandria. Commentary on the Gospel of St Luke.1983. Trans. by R. Payne Smith (Long Island: Studion Publishers)

Vidor, Gian Marco. 2014. ‘Satisfying the Mind and Inflaming the Heart: Emotions and Funerary Epigraphy in Nineteenth-century Italy’, Mortality, 19.4: 342–60

Next exhibition: Luke 7:36–50

Luke 7:11–17

Revised Standard Version

11 Soon afterward he went to a city called Naʹin, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. 12As he drew near to the gate of the city, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a large crowd from the city was with her. 13And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14And he came and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” 15And the dead man sat up, and began to speak. And he gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized them all; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” 17And this report concerning him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.