Caravaggio’s Raising of Lazarus, Symbols and Stories


Raising of Lazarus, Messina.  

Cornelius Sullivan

July 16, 2012 


In Caravaggio’s painting Lazarus has the pose coming from the dead with arms spread, that Christ would assume on the cross going to the dead. One gets his body back, the other gives it away. The raising of Lazarus in the gospel narrative is about the body and death before the story of the cross. 

The cross without a body has become a symbol. There is nobody, no body. The removal of the body from the cross was Reformation Iconoclasm’s first step in progressing toward an abstract art and the ability to fashion a purely personal religion. The cross without a body is a symbol, and as such, one is allowed to make up one’s own meaning. The en-fleshed story was discarded.  

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.  Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, 1. 

Pope Benedict, the intellectual, does not mention a philosophical system or an academic tradition. He highlights two real things that inspire pilgrimages. Pilgrims go to Assisi because Saint Francis was there. “Backpacking pilgrims for art”, as I have called them, go to the Sistine Chapel, and they go all over Europe retracing the steps of pilgrims of faith from centuries before.  

Caravaggio’s art is about meaning. Right away, with clarity, we understand what the master story teller gives us. He tells stories with flesh. 

The raising of Lazarus is in the Gospel of Saint John, the evangelist who called himself “the disciple that Jesus loved”. There is an intimate human element in the Lazarus story that perhaps only John knew. When Jesus learned that his friend had died, he wept. But there is a strange element in the telling also. John’s gospel is the most soaring and transcendent and he relates that Jesus had a reason to not rush to heal Lazarus. The sisters of the sick man sent a message to Jesus and said, we know you can cure him. He said and did nothing. When he did go to Bethany Lazarus was buried and had been dead for four days. The narrative gets more concrete and realistic when the master is cautioned that there may be a stench. In the sequential logic of the gospel it was a set up for a big sign before he entered Jerusalem going to his own death. The raising of Lazarus from the dead was a sign that did have a profound effect on those who knew the family and for those who were coming to Jerusalem for Passover.  

Of course the realism of the gospel narrative is not lost on Caravaggio. He used models from the hospital in Messina and made them hold a stiff, a dead man, from the hospital. He would paint the stench. But the local vocal art critics trashed the painting ranking it lower than the work of a local mediocre hack artist. Caravaggio acted as he had done before. He was easily insulted. Would that he lived today, he could surround himself by yes men as politicians do, and not hear any criticism. Yes, Caravaggio, even though there is still a price on your head and we are stuck in this backwater in exile away from the great art that is happening in the Eternal City, you are still the greatest painter in all of Italy. As before, he drew dagger or sword and slashed. This time it was the painting. Then again, as he had done in two cases that we know of, the rejected Saint Matthew and the Angel, and the rejected Conversion of Saint Paul, he repainted the same subject quickly and successfully. This accounts for how he pulled form out of the darkness with cursive single strokes of the brush loaded with light paint. 

I heard Father Robert Barron say recently that words can change reality. He used the example of Jesus saying, “Lazarus come out”. Another example that he gave was when an umpire at a baseball game says, “You are out.” You are then, in fact out. Then he told of what Flannery O’Connor said at a distinguished literary dinner when someone said, “What a nice symbol the Eucharist is.” Flannery said, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” 

Caravaggio would never paint a cross with out a body. He painted stories.   

An artist friend has asked me repeatedly if Caravaggio was a religious man. It is as if he wants to believe that the artist was not, even though Caravaggio is one of the greatest religious painters of all time. If Caravaggio was involved today in social networking or online dating, and he said, as millions do, “I am not religious, but I am spiritual”, knowing his work, we would think him disingenuous. The religion that he paints is not about a god that we get to invent, it is about a God who has revealed himself in human history through stories. Spirituality is in you and it can end there. Religion by definition is outside of you. 

1. The Ratzinger Report  Messori, 1988.