Sunday, 6 April 2014

Art for Lent (33): ‘The Raising of Lazarus’
(ca 1510-1518), by Juan de Flandes

The Raising of Lazarus, Juan de Flandes, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Patrick Comerford

This Sunday [6 April 2014] is the Fifth Sunday in Lent. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Ezekiel 37: 1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8: 6-11; John 11: 1-45.

John 11: 1-45

1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus,‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

7 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8 The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ 9 Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11 After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’12 The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23 Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24 Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25 Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27 She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37 But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40 Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

The story in the painting

This Lazarus was a friend of Jesus. He dies of a disease after being seen by Christ. His sisters Martha and Mary are convinced that Lazarus would still be alive if Christ had not left. Christ, deeply touched by their sadness, raises Lazarus from the dead.

The Jewish high priests may be the men looking on from underneath a wicket door. When they hear of this miracle they conclude that Christ has become a threat to their position. They decide that the insurgent must be removed, once and for all.

I have chosen as my work of Art for Lent this morning ‘The Raising of Lazarus’ by Juan de Flandes. This painting, which was completed ca 1510-1518, is in oil on panel, measures 110 × 184 cm (43.3 × 72.4 in) and is in the Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Juan de Flandes (ca 1460-1519) was a Flemish painter who was probably trained in Ghent ca 1480. He produced many paintings in Spain, from 1496 until he died in 1519. He is considered a master of the High Renaissance, working in a style like that of Van der Goes.

His best-known religious paintings include ‘The Raising of Lazarus’ (1518, Museo del Prado, Madrid), ‘The Revenge of Herodias’ (Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp), and ‘The Capture of Christ’ (1500, Palazzo Reale, Madrid).

The name Juan de Flandes means John of Flanders, but his actual name is unknown. However, an inscription Juan Astrat on the back of one work suggests a name such as Jan van der Staat. The name of Jan Sallaert, who became a master in Ghent in 1480, has also been suggested.

Juan de Flandes was born ca 1460 in Flanders, in present-day Belgium, and probably trained in Ghent. His work shows similarities to that of Joos van Wassenhove, Hugo van der Goes and other artists in Ghent.

He became an artist in the court of Queen Isabella I of Castile ca 1496, and by 1498 he is described as a “court painter.” He continued to work for Queen Isabella until she died in 1504.

He painted many portraits of members of the royal family, as well as panels for an altarpiece for the queen.

After Queen Isabella died in 1504 began painting for churches in Salamanca (1505-1507), and then in Palencia, where he painted a large reredos in the cathedral.

Most of his work is now held in collections outside Spain and they are mainly religious themes. Panels from a large altarpiece from a church in Palencia are divided between the Prado and National Gallery of Art, Washington, who have four panels each.

In this painting, Lazarus comes out of his tomb. Around him, we see two groups: Jesus and his disciples, and the two sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary.

Christ holds out his hand while he commands Lazarus to come out. His disciples are listening to him but they remain passive while the women are weeping and kneeling or prostrate.

The scene takes place in the open, in front of the house. Some of the onlookers put their hands to their faces because, as this Gospel reading tells us, the corpse already stinks.

The Risen Lazarus is looking at Christ as if struck with astonishment.

Rembrandt, The raising of Lazarus, ca 1630, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Reading the story:

This story is well-known because it once contained the shortest verse in the Bible: Jesus wept (John 11: 35, AV). Of course, the word used for Jesus weeping is not the same word used to describe formal weeping at a Jewish funeral. It means to shed tears, and indicates that Jesus is not just formally acknowledging the death of his friend, but is sharing in the human emotions of grief and sorrow.

Jesus loved Lazarus, who had died in Bethany. When Jesus arrives in Bethany, he finds Lazarus has been dead four days. Jesus comes to his tomb, and despite the objections of Martha, he has the stone rolled away, prays, and calls on Lazarus to come out. This Lazarus does, wrapped in his grave clothes.

The Raising of Lazarus illustrates the two natures of Christ: his humanity in weeping at the death of his friend and in asking: “Where have you laid him?” (John 11: 35); and his divinity in commanding Lazarus to come forth from the dead (John 11: 43).

The name Lazarus means “God helps,” the Greek Λάζαρος (Lazaros) being derived from the Hebrew Eleazar, “God’s assistance,” or “God has helped.” So, already the name of the principal character in the story introduces us to expectations of God’s actions.

When the news of Lazarus is brought to Jesus, it is brought with no specific request to come or to act. His reply is enigmatic, and we are offered a comparison between physical death, which is inescapable, and spiritual death, which comes by choice.

There is a tenderness here that counters any harsh interpretation of Christ’s words – we are told Christ loves Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus. Christ does not delay going to Bethany out of callous disregard for the plight of Mary and Martha. What he is going to do is not as a reaction, but on his own initiative, so that Christ is proactive rather than reactive.

We are confronted too with the Johannine contrast between light and dark, a Johannine theme we encountered in recent weeks in the lectionary readings, for example, about Nicodemus and the blind mean healed at the pool of Siloam.

We are confronted too with the Johannine theme of seeing and believing. We can contrast Thomas’s apparent faith at this point, with his refusal to believe until he sees for himself after the Resurrection.

Here, as in Saint Luke’s Gospel, Martha is the active sister, while Mary is the contemplative member of the household in Bethany (see Luke 10: 38-42). Martha has moved beyond personal interest in seeking for her brother; now she moves beyond even that wider but limited circle of want and need to accepting what God wills.

Martha addresses Jesus as “Lord.” But notice then how she uses three distinct titles in affirming her faith in Christ: Messiah, Son of God, and “the one coming into the world.” After that, the title “the Teacher” appears to be quite a mundane title for Martha to use. Yet this is also the title Mary Magdalene uses at the tomb on Easter morning (John 20: 16).

When Jesus asks: “Where have you laid him?” he asks precisely the same question the women ask when they arrive at the empty tomb on Easter morning (John 20: 2), and when Mary approaches Jesus in the garden (John 20: 13). So can we draw parallels between what is happening at this grave, and what we can expect two weeks later on Easter Day?

This chapter also includes the fifth of the “I AM” sayings in this Gospel: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11: 25). This incident also reminds us that death is not the end. Indeed, I am reminded of how Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to say that there are things that are worse than death for a Christian … including the loss of values, commitment and faith.


Most merciful God,
who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ
delivered and saved the world:
Grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross,
we may triumph in the power of his victory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of hope,
in this Eucharist we have tasted
the promise of your heavenly banquet
and the richness of eternal life.
May we who bear witness to the death of your Son,
also proclaim the glory of his resurrection,
for he is Lord for ever and ever.

Tomorrow: ‘The Bosworth Crucifix’

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