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The Raising of Lazarus:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Probably painted to serve as a devotional altarpiece, this painting was presented by the Venetian Republic to the Marquis de Goddes et Varenne, a French nobleman, for diplomatic services. It remained in the family collection at the Chateau de la Hamonais in Brittany until 1977, which explains its wonderful state of preservation.
The painting depicts the raising of Lazarus, which is a biblical miracle told in the Gospel of John 11:1-44. Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, was dying at Bethany. Word was sent to Jesus Christ to come to his assistance. By the time Christ arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days. Martha, who came out to meet him, lamented the fact that if he had arrived sooner, her brother would not have died. Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he died, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." Christ went to the tomb where Mary and other mourners had gathered. The stone was rolled from the opening of the cave, and Christ said, "Lazarus, come forth." In the presence of many witnesses, Lazarus emerged from the tomb. His hands and feet were bound with linen, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. Christ said: "Unbind him, and let him go." Lazarus was alive again.
The focal point of this dramatic scene is the interaction that occurs between Christ, Lazarus, and his sister Mary at the tomb. Lazarus, who has just been raised from the dead, stretches his arm toward the extended hand of Christ, reminiscent of Michelangelo's depiction of the creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. Mary, who has fallen to her knees before Christ, gazes up at him.

Tintoretto did not adhere strictly to the biblical account. Lazarus is shown emerging from a sarcophagus that has been brought out of the tomb, rather than coming directly from the tomb wrapped in linen. Thus, the life-infusing process, the miracle, takes place in the open fully visible to the witnesses gathered about as well as to us. Our experience of the scene is vividly enhanced by the inclusion of the people who react to the odor of Lazarus' decaying flesh by turning away or protecting their noses. (Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh; for he hath been dead four days. John 11:39.)

Lazarus' sister, Mary, may be the same person as Mary Magdalene. Although many theologians dispute the accuracy of this assumption, it was generally accepted in Tintoretto's time. This view is given support by the gospel. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. John 11:2) The attributes which usually identify Mary Magdalene are not present. The only possible clue is her long flowing hair, but that attribute is not exclusive to her. The elegance and mannered artificiality of her appearance seem inappropriate for the setting, and is certainly atypical of the usual depiction of Mary Magdalene. Her left hand points to Christ's feet (possible reference to the wiping of the feet). The position of her other hand is a common Mannerist device. (Note the woman with the doves in the El Greco.)
Tintoretto has given Mary Magdalene a strategic position, because she was an important subject in the Counter-Reformation. As a penitent sinner, she was the ideal model the Church wanted to project. She confirmed the significance of faith for the wavering viewer amid the chaos and confusion of religious conflict in the 16th century. This fact makes it understandable that Tintoretto would have given Mary an important position in the painting, and chose to include her instead of her sister Martha.
The miracles of Christ, like the raising of Lazarus, were powerful Counter-Reformation messages. They provided a highly dramatic subject matter for paintings that would in turn elicit great emotional response from their viewers. The miraculous event of bringing Lazarus back to life was perceived as a prefiguration of Christ's own resurrection. Christ's message, "he who believes in me shall never die" was made literally visible and dramatically tangible in this painting.
The many witnesses in the painting are divided into two groups. Those on the left that surround the sarcophagus are participating in the event. The older man to the extreme left and the younger man in blue above Lazarus are removing the linen from his body. Others may represent the Jews who came with Mary to the tomb to weep. The solemn figures to Christ's right who quietly observe the scene are probably Christ's disciples. The two reclining men on each side of the foreground may be attendants who have just brought Lazarus' sarcophagus out of the tomb.
The identity of the ethereal figures who approach from the path from the background and their relationship to the rest of the scene is a mystery, but because this is a Mannerist painting, perhaps they have no relationship.
Tintoretto was an outstanding practitioner of the alla prima technique. His brushstrokes were so abbreviated that his method has been termed prestezza, literally meaning "quickness." Although Tintoretto's prestezza derived from the painterly technique of the revered Titian, it was criticized even in his own lifetime for its lack of finish. Prestezza certainly contributed to the rapid execution and consequent vast output of his career
The raising of Lazarus is an example of a type of horizontal, religious narrative painting, a relatively new picture type that he exploited. Probably made to hang on the side walls of chapels, these pictures typically feature active figure groups set in a forward plane to maximize the effect of formal monumentality and narrative intensity. Following Titian's example, Tintoretto has inserted contemporary persons into an episode taking place in the past.

Tintoretto was an eclectic artist who never hesitated to take what he needed from the works of other masters. He incorporated motifs freely borrowed from Michelangelo in to the composition of The Raising of Lazarus. The reclining Lazarus, whose outstretched hand, recalls both the pose and the role of Adam, who receives the divine spark of life in the Creation fresco in the Sistine Chapel, while the figure of Christ, with finger pointing to Lazarus, assumes the role of God the Father in that scene. The reclining male figures in the foreground corners, twisted into a serpentinata form, looking over their shoulders with knees bent, strongly recall the tomb sculptures of Night and Day in the Medici Chapel in Florence.

There are many aspects of the painting for which there is no logical explanation. We anticipate that we are looking into a cave, but its entrance has a round arch. The tall, attenuated figure of Christ has an ethereal quality, yet the body of Lazarus looks remarkably robust and muscular for the "decaying" body of a sick man, In many areas, we must look carefully to see which arm is attached to which body.

Tintoretto has crowded figures into the sides of the painting, but left a void that exists slightly off-center. It is around this void that the activity is organized. Lines created by the figures and their gestures direct our vision in a circular manner. Our attention is directed into the composition by the left reclining figure in the extreme foreground.1 His head nearly touches the knee of the elder man who is climbing out of the sarcophagus. The white linen that falls across his knees leads our eye to Lazarus. His arm gesture directs us toward Mary who in turn points toward Christ. The circle is completed as we move behind Christ to his disciples and back to the reclining figure on the right. Even the man at the right whose back is toward us points with the hand that is behind his back. (This is a self-portrait of the artist.) Note that the heads of this group of standing figures forms its own circular movement, echoing the larger circle. All the while, the void forms the nucleus of the circle. The complex composition that revolves around the void continually leads our eye back to Mary, emphasizing her importance in this painting as a model of faith.

This apparent unity is counteracted by several strong diagonals that pull away from the center void. These diagonals are formed by the prominent reclining figures: the elderly man sitting on the base of his tomb gesturing towards something outside the picture plane, the extended body of Lazarus, and the reclining pair of men in the immediate foreground. Many figures are posed in some variant of the figura serpentinata, creating separate vortices of movement. The only principal figure that is nearly static is Christ, who serves as a calming and stabilizing element.

Distortion of Figures
The bodies of the reclining foreground figures demonstrate remarkable skill in foreshortening, a technique for which the artist was known. Throughout the composition, Tintoretto has placed figures in positions that require great skill on the part of the artist to accomplish. For example, on the right, a man's head is bent so that we see it from the top with a small portion of his face showing. Many other figures are also seen from unusual angles. He has also given great attention to depicting the transparency of the linen so that we can see a body beneath it. All of these features would have provided the artist with an opportunity to demonstrate his virtuosity in depicting unusual and perhaps physically impossible poses for the sake of graceful effect. In this regard, note the unnatural elongation and disproportionately small heads of the bodies of Christ and of the group of standing men to his back.

The composition is just enough off-center to cause tension of Space in our optical perception. The principal action takes place in the middle ground, where all the figures are densely placed, leaving other areas of the picture vacant. Instead of one vanishing point, there are several, leading the eye in diverse directions. The dimensions of the sarcophagus defy logic, for one side runs off the left side of the painting, indicating that it must be of huge size. Yet we see no trace of the side opposite Lazarus.

Use of Light
The drama is further heightened by the way Tintoretto used light in the composition. There is no consistent source of light in the painting. Light from the sky backlights the figure of Christ and Mary while light seems to emanate from the heads of both figures in halo-like patterns. Christ stands out dramatically against the evening sky. Although the many figures to both the right and left are submerged in shadow, a mysterious light plays across the surface of the painting illuminating Lazarus' body, Mary's and Christ's face, and highlights the white garments of the reclining figures in the foreground. In addition, Christ seems to be contained in a mandorla, visible in the light patch between the back of Christ and the witness figure next to him. In an interior illuminated only by candles, the effect of this painting would have been very dramatic.

Spiritual Intensity
Tintoretto was a fervently devout Christian, volatile and unworldly. Instead of relying on aristocratic and state patronage, his livelihood depended chiefly on church commissions and on confraternities, essentially religious institutions. Possibly as a result of these associations, the problem of religious renewal dominated Tintoretto's subject matter from a certain period onwards. In this painting, Tintoretto has juxtaposed the natural and the supernatural, the human and the divine. Whereas a Renaissance painter might have depicted this miracle in terms of an earthly event, Tintoretto has emphasized that it is, in fact, a phenomenon requiring God's presence.

Tintoretto's use of intense color contributes to the powerful impact of this work. Colors range from rich reds to deep maroons and include many tints of blue. White is used to create highlights, which create a sense of movement as well as to capture our attention. Allied with rich, contrasting color is his energetic, expressive manner of applying paint.

Jacopo Robusti was known as Tintoretto because his father was a dyer (tintore). The addition of etto makes the word diminutive, hence, son of the dyer. As a member of a working class family, Tintoretto initially grew and worked outside the Venetian artistic circle and sphere of patronage. He is reputed, however, to have begun his training in Titian's studio and probably learned there his painterly technique. According to legend, he displayed a sign outside his shop proclaiming that he "combined the drawing of Michelangelo with the color of Titian." These two masters remained the dominant influences in the formation of both his compositions and his style.

It is believed that he traveled to Rome in 1547. Certainly he was familiar with the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, either through personal experience or reproductive engravings. After this date, Tintoretto's own works show the effects of Michelangelo's profound influence.

Tintoretto is acknowledged as one of the three leading painters in 16th century Venice, along with Titian and Veronese. Three hundred of Tintoretto's compositions survive today, most of them in situ in Venice.

This painting is one of several known versions of the same theme, several in all, produced by Tintoretto's workshop. They manifest notable variations. Not all are attributed to Jacopo; one has been ascribed with certainty to his son Domenico, who collaborated with him for a time. In any case, this painting is surely a collaborative work, involving the participation of others. However, the work has been attributed to Tintoretto as the master painter who conceived the project and supervised its execution. In this capacity, he would have participated himself to some degree, probably sketching in the design and executing the major figures. Other areas and details would have been left to assistants. It was the common practice of Venetian workshops to turn out multiple replicas of a successful theme, often with progressively less participation on the part of the original master. The MIA's The Allegory of Water, by Francesco and Jacopo Bassano, is an example of a prime version of which variants continued to be produced for decades.

In 1995, on the occasion of the Treasures of Venice exhibition, two scholars of Venetian painting, W. R Rearick and Robert Echols, examined The Minneapolis Institute of Arts painting first-hand. They came to the conclusion that while it is certainly a Venetian picture of the period, it is surely not all by one hand, and not all by Jacopo Tintoretto. They recognized the participation of several other artists who were known collaborators of Tintoretto, among them his son Domenico and Lambert Sustris. The composition also contains quotations of motifs from other known works by Tintoretto himself. These remarks tend to confirm that it is indeed a workshop production.

Encyclopedia of World Art, Vol. XIV, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1967.

Gardner's Art Through the Ages, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York, 1975.

Hall, James, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, Harper and Row, New York, 1974.

Myers, Bernard, Art and Civilization, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1957.

Steer, John, Concise History of Venetian Painting, Prager, New York, 1970.

Tietze, Hans, Tintoretto, Phaidon Press, Ltd., London, 1948.

Use on the following tours:
  • European Art (14th - 18th C.)
  • Spirituality and Art
  • Highlights of the Museum's Collection
  • Visual Elements

Compare the Tintoretto composition with that of El Greco, Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple. El Greco shared Tintoretto's religious fervor, and his work was greatly influenced by the Venetian school and particularly by Tintoretto.

In a discussion of technique, compare and contrast Tintoretto's brushstrokes and choice of color with that of another painter, like Rembrandt, Delacroix, an Impressionist, Van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin, or Matisse.

  1. These reclining figures on the left and right are called repoussoir figures. Repoussoir (from the French verb, repousser, meaning to push out), is a term used to describe a figure or other object placed in the extreme foreground of a picture to guide the spectator's attention to the center of the picture.
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Source: Docent Manual entry for Tintoretto, <i>The Raising of Lazarus,</i> The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009