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The Raising of Lazarus

The Resurrection of Lazarus

Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). The National Gallery – London.

John alone tells the miracle of the rising of Lazarus. He tells it in many details. The story follows here, for it is interesting to understand how extraordinary John – who otherwise gives account of few miracles - thought this particular act of Jesus was.

There was a man named Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha, and he was ill. It was the same Mary, the sister of the sick man Lazarus, who anointed the lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. The sisters sent this message to Jesus, “Lord, the man you love is ill.” On receiving the message, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death, but it is for God’s glory so that through it the Son of God may be glorified.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, yet when he heard that he was ill he stayed where he was for two more days before saying to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judaea. Our friend Lazarus is at rest; I am going to wake him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he is at rest he will be saved.” Jesus was speaking of the death of Lazarus, but they thought that by ‘rest’ he meant ‘sleep’. So Jesus put it plainly, “Lazarus is dead. And for your sake I am glad I was not there because now you will believe. But let us go to him.” Then Thomas –known as the Twin – said to the other disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.” G38

On arriving, Jesus found that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days already. Bethany is only about two miles from Jerusalem and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming she went to meet him. Mary remained sitting in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died, but even now I know that God will grant whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said, “I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said, “I am the resurrection, anyone who believes in me, even though that person dies, will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she said, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world.” When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in a low voice, “The Master is here and wants to see you.” Hearing this, Mary got up quickly and went to him. Jesus had not yet come into the village; he was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were in the house comforting Mary saw her get up quickly and go out, they followed her, thinking that she was going to the tomb to weep there. G38

Mary went to Jesus and as soon as she saw him she threw herself at his feet, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died?” At the sight of her tears and of those of the Jews who had come with her, Jesus was greatly distressed, and with a profound sigh he said, “Where have you put him?” They said, “Lord, come and see. Jesus wept and the Jews said, “see how much he loved him.” But there were some who remarked, “He opened the eyes of the blind man. Could he not have prevented this man’s death?” Sighing again, Jesus reached the tomb; it was a cave with a stone to close the opening. Jesus said, “Take the stone away.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now he will smell; this is the fourth day since he died.” Jesus replied, “Have I not told you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took the stone away. Then Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father I thank you for hearing my prayer. I myself knew that you hear me always, but I speak for the sake of all these who are standing around me, so that they may believe it was you who sent me.” When he had said this, he cried in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The dead man came out, his feet and his hands bound with strings of material and a cloth over his face. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go free.” G38

John tells few miracles, but the ones he tells about he recalls compellingly as if he had been present. And he might indeed have been since he was one of the apostles and very close to Jesus.

For a picture of the miracle of the raising of Lazarus from the death, we look at a painting made by another Venetian, Sebastiano del Piombo. Sebastiano was born in 1485 and he was called Sebastiano Veneziano for his first works. In 1531 he received an office from the Pope. He became the friar of the Piombo, the signet-office of the Popes. This provided Sebastiano with a papal sinecure, that of Keeper of the Papal Seal, which owed him the name of del Piombo.

Sebastiano del Piombo had been a pupil of Giorgione da Castelfranco. Sebastiano worked not for most of his life in Venice, but in Rome. He arrived there in 1511 and never really returned to his hometown. Together with Giorgione da Castelfranco and Tiziano Vecellio, Sebastiano formed the main Venetian High Renaissance painters. But Giorgione died young and Sebastiano left for Rome, so Venice was all for Tiziano. Sebastiano del Piombo is thus a generation younger than Veronese and Tintoretto.

Sebastiano del Piombo worked in the circle of Michelangelo in Rome and it seems that for the ‘Resurrection of Lazarus’ Michelangelo helped Sebastiano with a design of compositionF1. Some of the figures are depicted in Michelangelo’s style. Look at Lazarus for instance. The way the man is positioned, the way his body is turned is very sculptural. We feel here the sculptor working with a model, twisting the arms and legs of the body until the necessary original pose is found. We feel the delight and force of Michelangelo working with a body, touching it with his powerful hands and shaping it like a God. This is quite unlike anything Giorgione or earlier painters could have devised, and even the great Tiziano would show more fluidity and softness in his nudes.

Jesus conjures Lazarus to stand up in a rhetoric gesture. The Jesus must have been Sebastiano’s, because a little too much of the rhetoric is necessary, more than Michelangelo would have needed. Other gestures of drama can be seen in Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus. Michelangelo and, or Sebastiano del Piombo, have well understood the most powerful miracle of Jesus. Lazarus is indeed a strong, mature man and Jesus needs all his powers of appeal to bring back Lazarus. But appeal is shown here, not command.

Sebastiano del Piombo is not considered one of the greatest painters of his time. This is maybe why he needed the help of Michelangelo for such a forceful theme as this miracle of all miracles. The ‘Resurrection of Lazarus’ is a very special picture though. It surprises by the well-delineated forms of the figures, which are all painted completely, such as Jesus and Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Each figure is shown in a different gesture, each figure is differently clad. Were all these based on individual drawings by Michelangelo? Look at the old man knelt on the lower left, but also at the hooded lady in the background on the right. All figures are very different, worth discovering. Next to Jesus is a bearded disciple showing his hands in marvel, whereas to the left of Jesus are two youth, dressed similarly. One is looking at Jesus with intense curiosity; the other discusses the scene with energy. All these figures are painted in shining, bright colours, which are so hard they give an impression of coldness. These colours and the frozen, artificial gestures seem as if time was brought to a standstill. This artificiality we only find back much later in for instance French neo-classicist art of the nineteenth century.

The background of the picture consists of the scene of a town by a lake or river. The town feels Roman more than Venetian. There is solidity of robust walls and of a heavy bridge, which is very alien to the grace of Venice.

Del Piombo may not have been a great master by himself, but his ‘Resurrection of Lazarus’ certainly captures the spirit of the most difficult miracle of Jesus as told by Saint John. Sebastiano of course read the story and painted it accordingly: Lazarus still has the white cloth over his face as John recalls. Sebastiano’s picture is a surprising painting, which blends Florentine clearness of form and idealistic representation, Roman volume and Venetian sense of colour. Sebastiano was an excellent artisan in showing us the forms in the contrasts between the hard light and the shadows on the robes. The genius of drama of the master sculptor Michelangelo was added. When one looks at the development of Michelangelo, one feels a treatment of texture and colour in his paintings that come from another place than Florence. Michelangelo may well have helped painters like Sebastiano del Piombo, but by watching them further develop the theme, also wonder and be surprised at the effects. Venetian influence may have worked back some to Michelangelo.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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