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
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.