Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.

Art and the Church

The Raising of Lazarus by Caravaggio

Word and Image Bible Study based on John 11:1-44 and The Raising of Lazarus by Caravaggio

Target group For small groups or personal study
Caravaggio was one of the greatest painters in European history. His compositions were deeply intimate and emotional. At the same time Caravaggio’s great use of lighting turned his canvases into spaces with the powerful intensity of a lit stage. Caravaggio did not only recreate the same biblical scenes as his contemporaries. He often painted characters that were not normally painted and emphasized things that were not normally emphasized. His desire to paint his scenes truthfully and objectively was radical for his time. He tried to paint things as they were and had no qualms about emphasizing the broken, transient, and flawed nature of humanity.
These human flaws were more than clearly seen in Caravaggio’s own life. Although he had great spiritual insight and was able to communicate these insights through his art, he was also deeply troubled. In 1606 he fled from Rome to Naples because he had killed a man. He then left Naples for Malta in 1607 where he was arrested over a separate incident. He then managed to escape imprisonment and fled to Sicily in 1608 and then on to Naples in 1609. Finally he went back to Rome in 1610 when he was granted a full pardon by the Pope.
Aim Jesus’ encounter with Lazarus is perhaps the best example of Jesus’ active reshaping of the reality around him to birth hope in hopelessness. This group study will help us explore this encounter as told in John 11:1-44 and its unique visual interpretation by the famous Italian artist Michelangelo Caravaggio.
Scripture reading Read John 11:1-44 together. Discuss the questions below.
1. What is the first thing that jumps out at you?
2. Who are the main characters of the text?
3. What do you think they are feeling?
4. Why didn’t Jesus heal Lazarus from afar? (see vs. 4)
5. Why where his disciples willing to follow him?
The Raising of Lazarus by Caravaggio If possible, project the painting unto a large screen, a computer or television screen. Or look up the painting in a book. Take a few minutes to look at the painting in silence. Do not discuss it immediately. Throughout the study questions will be posed in black, while answers are rendered in blue. At all of these instances, first take time to reflect and discuss before you read the explanatory blue passages.
What is the first thing that jumps out at you?
Try to identify the characters in the painting. What do you think they are feeling?
Which figure are you drawn to most?
What verse do you think Caravaggio is painting here?
The painting is based on John 11:44. Lazarus is perhaps the most prominent figure in the painting. He is naked and stiff yet alive. Jesus is also prominent, his body language both powerful and authoritative. It is as if he is issuing a command that must be obeyed or willing a reality that must be brought forth. Mary and Martha are also present. Mary is holding Lazarus’ head while Martha is behind her. They can be distinguished from one another via traditional ways artists have depicted these figures (such as Mary’s veil). The Jews/crowds that were around during the miracle are seen here helping Lazarus, talking to one another and amazed at Jesus.
When Jesus’ disciples protest his decision to go to Judea he simply says, ‘Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world’ (9-10). Earlier in the gospel of John Jesus identifies himself as the light of the world (John 8:12). He goes on to say, ‘Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ Yet following the light seems to lead one to its fair share of dark places. Places of danger (as the disciples are well aware) and places of great sorrow. Jesus is deeply moved by Lazarus’ death. One of the verbs used to describe his reaction is a kind of snorting that is also used to describe the sounds of a horse.
What do you think Caravaggio is trying to show us with his use of light and dark?
Where is it the brightest? Where is it the darkest?
Why isn’t the light emanating from Jesus, but from behind Jesus?
Why do you think Caravaggio has decided to paint Jesus in this way instead of being grief stricken?
Caravaggio has decided to paint Jesus’ authority over death instead of his humanity when confronting death. Jesus’ size and posture, his outstretched arm and downwards pointing hand emphasize his authority. The darkest part of Caravaggio’s painting is the mouth of Lazarus’ grave, the place of his death. The light source that illuminates Lazarus comes from behind Jesus, but it is not Jesus (the truth and the light) himself. In this sense Jesus is rendered in his humanity here, not in his supernatural divinity as a source of light himself. Through this Caravaggio seems to emphasize that this act of resurrection is a triune action. It is executed by Jesus based on the will of the Father and through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Lazarus, although raised, would eventually die again. Those close to him would again eventually have to deal with the grief of losing someone loved so dearly. They would be put through the feelings of pain, helplessness, and hurt once again. However, this was no exercise in futility. The hope that Christ brings always points to an even greater hope on the horizon. Christ uses Lazarus’ death to make another claim about his identity. He tells Martha, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die’ (25).
What do you think Caravaggio is trying to tell us about life and death by his placement of Lazarus’ body? Of his hands?
Do you think this has something to do with his use of darkness and light?
With one hand reaching towards the light and the other towards the skull Lazarus appears to be in between life and death. Lazarus’ body is shaped like a body on a cross (arms outstretched, feet crossed). Through this Caravaggio makes clear that the resurrection of Lazarus points forward to the death and resurrection of Christ. The scene is also depicted in a way that reminds us of scenes of Christ being mourned beneath the cross.
Jesus calls Lazarus out of his tomb. Even though it has been four days and the stench would have been unbearable, he calls for the stone to be rolled away (39). In Romans 8:12-21 Paul tells us that death is the ultimate end to sin, that sin is decomposition. Yet Jesus is willing to face the stench so that he can heal Lazarus and bring life where once was only death. Jesus knowingly enters suffering and sorrow in love.
Earlier traditions had Lazarus fully alive either sitting up inside the tomb or standing outside of it, but Caravaggio has decided to interpret this scene differently and paint Lazarus in between life and death. Why do you think he has decided to do this? Why do you think he prominently displays people helping Lazarus recover?
By showing Lazarus in this intermediate state it seems that Caravaggio is touching upon the doctrine of sanctification. Paul’s letter of the Romans 8:12-21 tells us that we are living in a state of transition, of constantly being guided by the Spirit from death to life. In short, although we have been given new life through our belief in Christ we must also continue to die to our old sinful selves, or in Paul’s words, ‘put to death the misdeeds of the body.’ Given Lazarus’ weakened state and stiff body position it is undeniable that he is in need of assistance. Caravaggio does this perhaps to emphasize the need of Christian community. That when on the journey from life to death, we need to help one another as we can’t do it on our own.
Final question
Is there a tomb that Jesus is calling you out from? Is there any part of your life that you want to keep hidden behind a stone?
This study is prepared by Albert Wu. Albert studies at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada.