On Wednesday, we celebrate the feast day of St Martha, who was the sister of Lazarus. The gospel for her feast day is John 11:19 -27, in which she professes faith in Jesus, before he raises Lazarus from the dead. In this work for a church in the Sicilian town of Messina, Jesus is on the left with his arm outstretched as he Lazarus is lifted from a tomb. Raking light picks out the body of Lazarus, which truth be told, shows little sign of life as yet.
The body of Lazarus looks stiff, as if from rigor mortis. The grave digger is lifting him up and supporting his body at an angle with a knee under his hip and an arm behind his shoulder blades. His hand touches the body of Lazarus quite near the heart. Is he waiting to feel a heart beat? Martha, the sister of Lazarus, holds his head close to hers. Is she listening for his breath? One of Lazarus’ arms seems to reach up to the light whilst the other falls down towards a skull lying on the ground. In this way, the transition from death to life happening within Lazarus is symbolised, but the cruciform shape of Lazarus’ body also prefigures the cross of Christ. In the Gospel of John the raising of Lazarus is a key reason why the enemies of Jesus resolve to put him to death (Jn 11:53). Indeed, they decided that Lazarus should die also (Jn 12:11) because for many he was a living sign of Jesus’ miraculous power. In fact, this painting looks more like deposition or an entombment than the raising of a dead man to life. The shroud held beneath the body of Lazarus recalls “The Entombment of Christ” which Caravaggio had painted for the Chiesa Nuova in Rome, especially the detail of the hand supporting the side nearest the heart. The closeness of the heads of Lazarus and Martha recalls so many depictions of Mary and Jesus in which she holds him in death, their faces pressed together, their lips close as if they shared a common breath. Indeed, in this picture Caravaggio may be drawing on certain Byzantine icons of Mary holding her son, for there was an Orthodox community in Messina. The raised arm of Christ and the hand with the index finger extended is surely the same as in “The Call of Matthew”. Both pictures share a dark interior with brightly-lit figures arranged in a frieze like manner. But here an overarching darkness extends across the whole top half of the canvas. Where another artist would have placed a celestial scene, an angel or a saint, there is only darkness. Only the extended hand of Christ counters the stark reality of death. The visual link with Christ in “The Call of Matthew” might be deliberate. Many of the Church Fathers would have understood the raising of Lazarus to also be about the forgiveness of sins. The dead Lazarus was like someone still living but weighed down by sin. As at the command of Christ, the tax collector Matthew left a life of sin behind him, so too at Christ’s command Lazarus left the tomb and death behind him.
It is thought that Caravaggio suggested this subject to his patron. His patron actually shared the name Lazarus, but Caravaggio must have been keenly aware of his own sins. And certainly his sins and death were linked. He was “on the run” because of his crimes and the threat of death was hanging over him. He had killed a man in Rome and then fled south. Eventually he reached Malta. Either through his fame as an artist, or because he had friends in high places, Caravaggio became a Knight of Malta on 14th July 1608. The Order had had to obtain a special permission from the Pope to allow this to happen. His hope of a full pardon and of returning to Rome must have been bolstered when the permission was granted. However, it was not to happen. Within weeks of becoming a knight, Caravaggio was involved in another brawl. One man was badly wounded by Caravaggio and he found himself in prison. However, he escaped in October and fled to Sicily. But by leaving Malta he had broken one of the rules of the Order and so on 1st December he was formally expelled from the Order in absentia. The raised hand of Christ, who by his dying conquered both sin and death, may have had a more personal significance for the artist.
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