Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Guercino): Raising of Lazarus

This wonderful painting is an interesting contradiction between the spiritual and philosophical views of the artist and what appears on the canvas. He was a profoundly religious man who believed the Jesuit argument – that all the senses should be engaged in empathy with the events of martyrdom and ecstasy. He refused a court appointment from English king Charles I, partly because the climate of the court but also because he didn’t wish to mix with heretics. Yet this marvellous painting emphasises the physical and human nature of the raising of Lazarus while the composition and the texture downplays the role of Christ. The raising of Lazarus is a significant miracle as it foreshadows the resurrection of Christ himself, yet there is no hint of this in the painting.

The Raising of Lazarus is taken from John 11:38-53 and is one of Christ’s 37 miracles.

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When we look at the Raising of Lazarus, it is a remarkably physical painting, and not particularly strong on religious symbolism, apart from the slight halo around Christ’s head. Indeed, the figure of Christ, in the top right-hand corner of the painting, is a relatively muted figure compared to the luminescent figures of Lazarus and Mary, who is looking up towards him. The emphasis is very much on Lazarus as he makes the transition between death and life, an emphasis on the physical rather than the spiritual.

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The eight figures in the painting create a powerful dynamic. Lazarus sits slumped, having just been dragged from his tomb. As his hands are untied, he appears to be reaching up towards Christ. It is reminiscent of Michelangelo‘s The Creation of Adam painting that Guercino would have been familiar with, in both subject matter and construction. Both paintings depict the divine gift of life and positioning of the divine figure in the top right-hand corner and the human in the bottom left is common to both paintings.

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The dynamic between Lazarus and Christ is reinforced by the gaze of Mary who looks up towards him in amazement.

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There is another dynamic connecting the left-hand side of the painting to the Christ figure and the right. It is the flow of muted light that runs through Martha, Lazarus’ sister towards the figure of Christ. Martha also anchors the two other figures, probably Pharisees (who really didn’t believe that Christ was capable of performing miracles) in the upper left-hand corner of the painting.

The figure of Christ is isolated by the strong diagonal movement across the painting from the top left of the bottom right. Here the softer tones of Martha and the two clerics flowing to the dazzling detail of the boy undoing Lazarus’ bonds and Lazarus himself and finally focusing on the man looking down into the tomb and holding his nose because the stench.

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