Passion For Art

The Raising of Lazarus

The Raising of Lazarus   Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

By :- Mr Gari Phillips

At the heart of the National Gallery the vast canvas of The Raising of Lazarus looms up out the darkness, a ghostly, ghastly apparition. One of the artist’s most sublime figural compositions, it was painted in 1609 for the high altar of a church just outside Messina in Sicily. The whole upper half of the canvas is empty, but in the lower half a crowded frieze of figures, fitfully lit by flickering light, extends from edge to edge.

Viewers enter the picture at the extreme left, through the highlighted face of the onlooker who cranes his neck to see what is going on. Following the direction of his gaze, we are drawn by the light that travels horizontally across Christ’s outstretched arm and limp index finger to the exact centre of the composition, the raised arm of the putrefying corpse, Lazarus. The long diagonal of Lazarus’s nude body fills the right hand side of the composition, which is closed off at the right by the figures of Mary and Martha. As divine light strikes the open palm of his raised arm, infusing him with life, the fingers of both his hands stiffen and spread. We can see that the miracle of his resurrection has already occurred, but none of the onlookers yet realises what has happened, for Mary is still bending close to her brother’s face with her mouth open, in a desperate effort to breathe life back into him.

Only now, after we have “read” the picture from left to right, do we see that the out flung arms of Lazarus form a cross. This is Caravaggio’s way of underscoring the deeper significance of the biblical story, which foreshadows Christ’s own death and resurrection.

When Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio painted The Raising of Lazarus he was 39 and had one more year to live. His career can be divided roughly into three phases. Arriving in Rome in 1591, he began as a painter of still life’s and of half-length canvases showing half-dressed Roman street boys, often in frankly seductive poses, which were much appreciated by his clerical patrons. Then, beginning with the Calling of St Matthew (1599), he matured into a painter of dramatic, large-scale religious compositions for Roman churches. This exhibition looks at the third phase in Caravaggio’s career, the work he did after his flight from Rome in 1606. On May 28 of that year Caravaggio mortally wounded a man named Ranuccio Tomassoni in a street brawl. Escaping from papal jurisdiction, he began his final four-year peregrination from Naples to Malta and from Malta to Sicily. At each stop along the way he left large religious compositions in which action is largely replaced by an undeniable atmosphere of stillness and contemplation.

Supper at Emmaus painted in 1601 shows the beardless (and therefore as yet unrecognised) Christ in the act of blessing the food on the table, as the two disciples, suddenly realising who this stranger is, react in astonishment. As a foil to their amazement, the still unenlightened innkeeper impassively looks on. Strong, even light reveals forms and casts deep shadows on the wall behind the figures. The brilliant colours, the explosive gestures of the two disciples, and the way the powerful composition zigzags in and out of the space: all these are used to show off the painter’s incredible technical skill and powers of invention.

By contrast, the version of the picture in the Brera Museum in Milan, painted five years later in 1606, is quietly introspective. Now the composition has been simplified, the lighting muted, the action focused, and the gestures contained. Stripping away all inessentials, Caravaggio sets the action in a void, thus emphasising the solemn, Eucharistic moment when Christ, now shown bearded, blesses the bread and wine. Though not nearly as audacious a picture as the first version, the Brera picture is a more spiritual, more contemplative one. What we learn through this comparison is important: that Caravaggio had begun to paint in his “late” style even before he left Rome.

Whether Caravaggio became a devoutly religious man in his later years we will never know, but he took a form of holy orders when he became a Knight of Malta and the evidence of the late pictures themselves tells us that he thought deeply about his faith. No detail in them is unintentional or without significance. Caravaggio had many followers, but the single quality that makes works by him more profound than those of his imitators is a pictorial intelligence born out of a profound understanding of the subjects he painted. An example occurs in the small gallery where two paintings represent the period when, after a year in Naples, Caravaggio took up residence in Malta, a military outpost occupied by the Knights of St John whose order he joined in July 1608. In a portrait of that year thought to represent Fra Antonio Martelli, Caravaggio shows his subject wearing a crumpled silk habit emblazoned with the Grand Cross of Malta. The genius of the picture lies in the infinitesimal movement of the knight’s left hand as he lifts the sword ever so slightly from its scabbard, while at the same time continuing to finger rosary beads with his right hand. The two actions epitomise the mission of the Knights of Malta, an order made up of soldiers sworn to fight for the Christian faith. Another brawl, a gunshot, and one of the knights is seriously wounded. Caravaggio is defrocked,

imprisoned, and escapes to Sicily.

Working in these provincial cities far from the sophisticated Roman milieu, Caravaggio was more open to local influences – from Greek icons, which are so obviously the visual source for the quarter-moon shape of the Madonna’s pose in The Adoration of the Shepherds to the classical relief sculptures that surely inspired the shallow frieze of figures in The Raising of Lazarus.  Now, too, he brings acute psychological perception to the way he renders good and evil. Look at the composition of a half-length picture showing Salome with the Head of John the Baptist from Madrid. Caravaggio has crowded the three figures to the right side of the canvas, leaving a black void at the left. Salome, her cold eyes locked with ours, turns with the platter bearing the severed head away from the light and into the darkness, a damned soul.

The battered condition of several other Caravaggio masterpieces just adds to the sense that in his latter years Caravaggio spoke though his brush strokes of the spirit transcending the flesh.


December 6, 2012 - Posted by | Articles |


  1. Hey sweet heart from a girlreader keep up the wicked content

    Comment by Elvin Heidrick | December 16, 2012 | Reply

    • Thank you Elvin

      Comment by blankascanvas | December 17, 2012 | Reply

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