Tag: Giotto

Saint Lazarus

Saint Lazarus

“The Walking Dead”

Today July 29 is the official celebration day of two sisters and a brother: Martha, Mary and Lazarus. They are from Bethany, a city on the West Bank close to Jerusalem. And it’s the place where Lazarus miraculously resurrected from death, through the hand of Jesus, four days after his entombment. This has been a popular story throughout history and depicted for over 1000 years. Now we have Netflix and “The Walking Dead” series, but in those days there were only paintings to support imagination. The miracle of returning to life gave hope over the fear of death. And from a religious point of view this is a true “Act of God”.

Giotto di Bondone “Giotto” (c.1267 – 1377) “Raising of Lazarus” (c.1305), Fresco, 200x185cm, Scrovegni Chapel (Cappella degli Scrovegni), Padua, Italy.

The raising of Lazarus is a miracle of Jesus recounted in the Gospel of John (John 11:1–44) in the New Testament part of the Bible. Jesus raises Lazarus of Bethany from death, four days after his entombment. It went as follows. Lazarus became ill and his sisters Marta and Mary (note: this is Mary of Bethany and not Mary, the Mother of Christ) contacted Jesus to help curing their brother. He visited the sisters only after Lazarus already passed away. But no worries, they went to the tomb of Lazarus and Jesus said, “Take away the stone”. Martha then said, “it will stink, he has been in that tomb for four days”.  That’s depicted by members of the crowd cover their noses with cloth. They took away the stone and Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead Lazarus came out, his hands and feet wrapped in his grave cloths, but alive and kicking and lived for another 30 years. Jesus also said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

Giovanni di Paolo, “The Resurrection of Lazarus” (1426), 41x44cm, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

On the pictures are usually Martha and Mary, the two sisters of Lazarus, whose gestures and expressions record successive states of awareness and awe, and a crowd of astounded witnesses and some of Jesus’ followers. And the two main characters of course: Jesus making signs to resurrect Lazarus, and Lazarus himself getting up out of his grave. The story goes on, as Lazarus never smiled during the thirty years after his resurrection, worried by the sight of unredeemed souls he had seen during his four-day stay in Hell.

The Limbourg Brothers Paul, Johan and Herman, (active 1385 – 1416), “Raising of Lazarus”, from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (C.1412), Château de Chantilly, near Paris.

The event is said to have taken place at Bethany. This is the last of the miracles that Jesus performs before the passion, crucifixion and his own resurrection, linking Lazarus’ resurrection with Jesus’ resurrection, and through faith as a sign of hope for all Jesus’ followers. John Calvin summarized it nicely when he said, “not only did Christ give a remarkable proof of his Divine power in raising Lazarus, but he likewise placed before our eyes a lively image of our future resurrection.” The Lazarus story also appeared in Islamic tradition. Although the Quran mentions no specific figure named Lazarus, among the miracles with which he Quran credits Jesus, the raising of people from death is included.

Juan de Flandes (c.1460 – 1519), “The Raising of Lazarus” (c.1516), 110x84cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The reputed tomb of Lazarus is in Bethany (now called: Al-Eizariya, which means “Place of Lazarus”) and continues to be a place of pilgrimage to this day. Several Christian churches have existed at the site over the centuries. Since the 16th century, the site of the tomb has been occupied by the al-Uzair Mosque to serve the town’s (now Muslim) inhabitants and named it in honor of the town’s patron saint, Lazarus of Bethany.

Rembrandt van Rijn (16010 – 1669), “The Raising of Lazarus” (c.1631), 95x81cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.

In medical science “Lazarus syndrome” refers to an event in which a person spontaneously returns to life (the heart starts beating again) after resuscitation has been given up. The “Lazarus sign” is a reflex which can occur in a brain-dead person, thus giving the appearance that they have returned to life. The difference between revival immediately after death, and resurrection after four days, is so great as to raise doubts about the historicity of the Lazarus story. The hand of God is needed!

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), “The Raising of Lazarus”, after a print by Rembrandt, (1890), Oil on Paper, 50x66cm, Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation), Amsterdam.

I cannot resist to share an image of a more modern “Lazarus”, an artist impression of Béla Lugosi as Dracula from the famous 1931 film. At night, Dracula awakes from death and steps out of his coffin. Béla Lugosi made this Dracula image as iconic as Giotto did with his Lazarus fresco around 1305. Death and resurrection are eternal themes, based on a mixture of fear and hope. It’s with much wonder how we look at death and at the possibility to come back from the underworld. Are we identifying ourselves with Lazarus? And how about the nowadays series on Netflix, like “The Walking Dead”? I dare to see a similarity between a 13th century visitor to the Scrovegni Chapel, looking amazed at Giotto’s Lazarus, and ourselves watching an episode of The Walking Dead. It’s all a mixture of fear and hope. May we conquer death and may we come back to life, not like a zombie but in true divine Lazarus style!

Artist Impression of Béla Lugosi as Count Dracula in the the film “Dracula” (1931).

Pentecost

What is Pentecost and how is it depicted in art? Pentecost (UK: Whitsunday; NL: Pinksteren) is a Christian holy day, that must be seen in connection with Easter and the Ascension of Christ. It’s celebrated 50 days after Easter Sunday, and 10 days after Ascension Day. The word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek word “Πεντηκοστή” and simply means “fiftieth”. What happened is the following: Easter is the moment of the crucifixion and resurrection; at Ascension Day the physical body of Christ goes up to heaven and with Pentecost the spirit of Christ comes back to earth in the form of the Holy Ghost. And the Holy Ghosts descend upon the Apostles, the disciples of Christ, so that they can start spreading His word around the world.

El Greco (1541 – 1614), “Pentecost” (c. 1600), 275x127cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

This can be depicted with great drama. Look at El Greco’s painting from c. 1600. The Apostles and Maria are being covered by light and flames coming down from above, and the Holy Ghost is descending in its classic form of a white dove. Their hands up in wonder, and their faces with big glorious admiration. Drama galore! Small mundane detail: the second apostle from the right in the top row has been given the portrait of El Greco himself, and he is the only one looking at us viewers.

If I may demystify this moment a bit, than let’s look at the fresco by Giotto from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, painted roughly 300 years before the El Greco painting. It’s the Apostles, sitting together in a meeting session. It’s a few weeks after the moment Christ left them, and can it be that they are going from a mourning phase into a phase of accepting what happened? They are discussing how to move forward and they are deciding to spread the good word of Christ around the world. They seem to have received a sparkle of hope; they are seeing now light in darkness. Giotto depicted this moment as rays of light (or fire) coming from above and spreading over the Apostles. Compare this to the El Greco painting where this abstract concept of seeing light in darkness has been turned into a visual concrete drama with rays of light, the dove and flames descending upon the Apostles.

Giotto (c. 1267 – 1337), “Pentecost”, (c. 1304), 185x200cm, Fresco, Capella degli Scrovegni, Padua.

And to put Ascension and Pentecost next to each other, please look at these 17th Century Dutch prints: Ascension as the physical movement of Christ up to heaven and Pentecost as the spiritual movement of the Holy Ghost down from heaven.