The Resurrection of Lazarus
Artist: Giovanni Francesco Barbieri
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 199 x 233 cm
Louvre Museum, Paris France
Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, also known as Il Guercino (the squinter, possibly due to a case if strabismus) was born on February 2, 1591, in Cento, Italy. He was briefly educated in basic painting technique by the architect, Paolo Zagnoni, at the age of nine but spent a good deal of his life studying painting on his own. He moved to Bologna in his twenties, where he met Ludovico Carraci, who introduced him to many important people and helped launch Guercino’s career. In 1616, Guercino founded the Accademia del Nudo, a drawing academy, in his hometown of Cento.
In 1621 Guercino went to Rome, where he worked for Pope Gregory XV and completed works such as The Burial of Saint-Petronillia in Saint Peter’s Basilica. In 1626 King Charles I of England commissioned two paintings by Guercino and even asked him to move to London to be a court painter. Guercino completed the requested artwork but declined to move to London.
In his early years, Guercino was largely influenced by the famous painter, Caravaggio. This is evident in his use of light and dark, especially in The Resurrection of Lazarus. Guercino was said to have studied light and its relation to human skin very carefully and his work is evident in the subtle shadows on the human skin in this painting. He uses Caravaggio-esque techniques such as chiaroscuro, contrasting all surroundings to the exposed human skin, especially that of the raised Lazarus. The light source appears to be coming from the left side of the painting, possibly from the tomb or area surrounding the tomb. The sky behind the party is dark, as if it were night, so there must either be a light source, such as a lamp, or some sort of symbolic light coming from the cave, signifying Lazarus’s resurrection.
In the painting, the characters are gathered at what appears to be the entrance to the cave where Lazarus was entombed. Guercino set the action at the point where Lazarus is already out of the tomb and is being released of his corpse dressings. When examining the facial expressions of the characters depicted in the painting, it is evident that Lazarus is thoroughly confused and is almost in as much shock as his sisters and friends. He appears wide eyed and fatigued from being dead for four days.
Both Mary and Martha, Lazarus’s sisters, are completely awestruck at their brother’s resurrection. In John 11:31 Martha meets Jesus and cries to him that if He had been around, her brother would not have died. They clearly believed that Jesus could save their brother, but they had no idea that He could resurrect a man who had been fully dead for four days. Another character in the scene is untying Lazarus from his corpse bonds and another man is bent over, possibly gagging from the stench of the cave that had held a dead man for four days.
Jesus dominates the right side of the painting. He is pointing at Lazarus, instructing him to rise from the tomb. His wardrobe, of deep red and blue, contrasts that of the other characters who are dressed in earthly brown tones or black. Guercino painted him with the slightest halo illuminating his head against the dark sky behind him.
Guercino painted two priests into the top left corner of the painting, conversing about the event they just witnessed. They show deep concern and bewilderment at what Jesus just did. Jesus performed several resurrections in his lifetime, but the resurrection of Lazarus was particularly significant because it was a powerful catalyst towards Jesus’ crucifixion.