Giotto, The Raising of Lazarus, c. 1305 Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.
We looked at The Raising of Lazarus a few days ago, in the dark and mysterious painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner in the Musée d’Orsay (Picture Of The Day 95). Admittedly his work is titled ‘Resurrection’ rather than ‘Raising’, but that might be a result of translation from the French – the story is the same, whatever, and the names of specific events, like the titles of certain paintings, tend to get fixed within the language.
It’s interesting to note that Giotto does not spend too much time on Christ’s adult life – his teaching, and many miracles, are passed by, abbreviated along one wall into the most significant events. So far on this wall we have Christ Among the Doctors, The Baptism and The Wedding at Cana (POTD 87 & 93) – just a hint at his early life (the end of childhood?), the start of his mission and his first miracle. We then jump to the most significant miracle, perhaps: the promise of new life.
With the implacable movement of the Scrovegni narratives, Jesus arrives from the left of the pictorial field followed by some of the apostles – I can see four haloes, but there could well be others behind them, out of the frame. Two have already sprung into action – the one with yellow and blue is St Peter, but the other I would hesitate to identify. Jesus raises his hand in blessing, clear against the clear blue sky, in the middle of the space between himself and the crowd of onlookers. John 11:38 describes the nature of the grave: ‘It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it’. Giotto creates a hill for this cave, and as always, the landscape comments on the action. The hill leads up to the right, driving forward the narrative and lifting our eyes, a metaphor for the raising of Lazarus. Christ instructs them, ‘Take ye away the stone’ – which they have, with two rather small workmen holding the stone at an angle equivalent to the slop of the hill in the bottom right corner. However, just after this instruction (and before it is carried out), ‘Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.’
As I said the other day, Giotto makes this ‘stink’ visible – the woman on the far right covers her face with her blue cloak, and the apostle to the right of Lazarus has wrapped his cloak around his face. According to John 11:33-34, Jesus ‘cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go’. And this is how we see Lazarus – although the napkin has already been loosed allowing us to see Lazarus’ deathly pallor. The crowd to the left throw their hands up in amazement.
Before I talk about the two women prostrate at Jesus’s feet I’d just like to point out a technical detail. As we have seen before, in The Nativity for example (POTD 87), Jesus’s robe was painted red in true fresco, with the ultramarine blue painted a secco – meaning that it much of it has worn way. On the right of this detail you can see Peter’s robe, which was not painted at all when wet, and only has a blue a secco layer. Originally, when all the paint was still there, Jesus’s robe would have looked far richer in colour, with the red showing through to make the blue look deeper, even purple, while Peter’s would have been a less intense blue. Not only would this have helped to emphasize their relative status, but it would also have drawn our attention to Jesus – while still making Peter look important.
And after some painting technique, I’d like to get technical with the bible. Who are the two women prostrate at Jesus’s feet? At first glance, it would seem to be straightforward: Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus. According to John 11:5, ‘Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus’ – they were friends. They lived in Bethany, and, according to verse 2, which is entirely in brackets in the King James Version, ‘It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick’. This particular verse ties in with others, in Luke’s Gospel, 7:37-38:
And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.
The chapter ends at verse 50, with Jesus’s statement of forgiveness ‘And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace’. Almost immediately after this, in the second verse of the next chapter, Mary Magdalene is mentioned for the first time, ‘Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils’ – we are not told any more about this, but Mary appears regularly thereafter as one of Jesus’s followers, being present at the Crucifixion, and being the first witness to his Resurrection. After the entombment of Christ, Luke 23:55-56 and 24:1 says
And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment. Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared…
The ointment with which the ‘woman… which was a sinner’ washes Christ’s feet, this ointment in Luke 23, and the ointment in John 11:2 were all linked together. So were the statements that Luke’s sinner was ‘stood… behind him weeping’, that Mary (sister of Martha) was ‘weeping‘ in John 11:33, and the later statement in John 20:11 saying ‘Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping’, to suggest that Luke’s sinner, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the sister of Martha, were all one and the same woman, often to be seen weeping with a jar of ointment. This isn’t a new idea by any means – it was Pope Gregory the Great who connected the three women in a sermon back in 591. And that is how the Catholic church continued to see Mary Magdalene right up until 1969 when Pope Paul VI recognised them as three separate people. The Orthodox Church had always seen them as separate, and many Protestants rejected the connection as well: Calvin certainly did, although Luther continued to believe in the composite identity. Nevertheless, as almost every image of ‘Mary Magdalene’ that you will see from Western Europe, from medieval to baroque and beyond is the product of the Catholic Church, it is the penitent prostitute that is depicted.
It helps us to separate the two women here, even though we cannot see either of them clearly. The woman in the foreground, with her head covered, is Martha, and behind her, hair still visible and wearing red, is her sister Mary, assumed to be Mary Magdalene, the ‘scarlet woman’ (sorry, younger generation, I can’t explain).
That got a bit technical I know, and I’m going to do the same again, although not quite in so much detail. I mentioned on Wednesday (POTD 97) that Hercules was a ‘type’ of Christ, and realised that, although I’ve hinted at this form of interpretation, I had never thoroughly explained it. It relates to the setting of the Wedding at Cana which we saw last week (POTD 93).
The picture is framed by two decorative strips, which look like inlaid marble, with a scene in the centre of each. I suggested that you might recognise one of them.
Here they are on a larger scale. On the left is Moses bringing forth Water from the Rock and on the right, The Creation of Adam – it’s not entirely unlike Michelangelo’s more famous version painted some two centuries later.
And this is how it relates to The Raising of Lazarus. The message is quite straightforward – God gave Adam life, and Jesus gives Lazarus new life. This is why the story of Lazarus is so important – it isn’t just Lazarus who has new life: the Christian message is that everyone has new life in Jesus. We are ‘born again’, to use the evangelical catchphrase. In the earlier example, Moses provided water, while Jesus turns it into wine – and later, wine becomes his blood. In both cases we are seeing typological interpretations of the Jewish scriptures. For Christian theologians it was vital that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah, so they combed through every verse of the Old Testament to find any potential relevance to Christianity – and even things which were not prophecies were seen as predicting something in the New Testament. So Moses as a whole was the type of Jesus. The word comes from printing – think of movable type. A metal letter ‘t’, say, is covered with ink and printed – and a ‘t’ appears on the page. It is something which creates the image of itself. So Moses, leader of his people, who gave them the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, is a precursor of Jesus, the leader of his people, who gave the Sermon on the Mount. In both, the ‘Mount’ is important. But it wasn’t just the Old Testament to which this form of interpretation could be applied. It was assumed that the classical civilisations had partially misheard God’s message and got it wrong. Nevertheless, they thought, Aristotle’s Prime Mover was bound to be the Christian God (POTD 98), and for that matter, Jupiter, King of all the Gods, must have been a misunderstanding for God the Father, while Juno, Queen of the Heavens, could easily be a foretelling of Mary, Queen of Heaven – or so they reasoned. The fact that Giotto uses small details to include this form of interpretation, giving greater depth to the meaning of the chapel as a whole, is a sign of his genius. I’m sure it’s not entirely his idea – Enrico Scrovegni would have had a suitable theologian on hand to tell Giotto what to paint – but Giotto was the one who decided what it would look like, and precisely how it would all fit in. These are the details which are all too easy to miss – but which, like salt, bring out the full flavour. And there are many more…
But for today, enough, already. And enough for a while, I’m afraid. This marks the end of Picture Of The Day, but clearly not of pictures… I will continue to blog from time to time – after all, we’re not even two thirds of the way around the stories of the Scrovegni Chapel – so Scrovegni Saturday will keep going. This website will function as a mailing list, as well, and I’m going to try to be more conscientious about updating the ‘diary’ page – I’ll let you know when I do! In the meantime, thank you all for your interest, for your support, and for all of your kind comments. And, like Lazarus, I’m wishing a great new life for all of us after lockdown. He and his sisters all ended up in the South of France, as it happens, but that’s another story. There are always many more.