Caravaggio's The Raising of Lazarus

13 March 2005 at :00 am

A Sermon preached at the Sung Eucharist in Westminster Abbey,

by The Reverend Chris Chivers, Minor Canon and Precentor,

13 March 2005

Of all the signs in the Gospels, the account of the raising of Lazarus – parts of which we have just heard – is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular. Tellingly, it is placed at the mid-point of John’s narrative. It is to John what the transfiguration narrative is to Mark – a vital turning point in the story. Which is why the authors of the Church’s lectionary have placed it on this Sunday in the Christian year, as we turn from the rigours of Lent towards the increasingly arduous trek to Calvary; because like Mark’s transfiguration narrative, John’s Lazarus story raises central questions of belief. In it, Jesus asserts that he is the resurrection and the life, that those who believe in him, even though they die, will live, and that everyone who lives and believes in him will never die. This leads to an invitation to Lazarus to come out into this new life, which is an invitation to all of us to accept not only that Christ can negotiate the boundary between life and death, but that he can actually redraw and transform it. And if this is so, if he can make tomorrow become today, will we begin to believe, as that contemporary Christian Aid slogan invites us to believe, in life before death, as much as after it?

This question of course takes us to the heart of discipleship, but we’ve perhaps heard it so often before that by now it’s somehow lost its edge. We need to hear it anew. We need to re-imagine its possibilities and challenges. Which is why, with your order of service, you received a postcard reproduction of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s painting, The Raising of Lazarus– one of sixteen works by Caravaggio currently being exhibited at the National Gallery here in London – because to contemplate this painting is, I would suggest, actually already to have embraced that new life into which it beckons us.

So if we turn now to the postcard reproduction, notice first its most striking feature, which is the light permeating the lower half of the canvas but emanating from beyond the painting. Notice too the contrasting level of darkness in the painting – almost the entire upper half of the building where Caravaggio sets the scene is in fact in darkness. Structurally this is vital: the darkness perfectly counterbalances the radiance of the light which illuminates every face in the painting to some degree. But there is a theological point here, for Caravaggio takes us back to the beginning of creation, and to the God who brings light out of darkness, the same God whose work of redemption restores lost light to us.

Notice next how the truth of a God who brings light out of darkness, order out of chaos, is amplified further in the lower half of the painting. For in the figure of Christ on the left hand side we have the only true vertical and horizontal lines in the whole canvas. Here then is a God who commands by his very presence, who calls Lazarus to come out of the tomb, and each of us into the new ordering of his kingdom. This ordering is further emphasised if you trace your finger along the outstretched hand of Christ, through the uplifted hand of Lazarus towards his sister Mary. For this vertical line, together with that of the pavement beneath the feet of the participants, and the horizontals, left and right, through the bodies of Jesus and Martha – who bends over Lazarus’s face – compose a rectangle which structures the scene in artistic terms, a shape emphasised top left and bottom right by the cambric of Christ’s sleeve and of Martha’s skirt – both painted the same colour. Against this ordering we have the diagonal of Lazarus’s body illuminated by light from beyond the canvas, and the positions taken by most of the human beings who lean at various angles to the upright Christ. Artistic structure again points to theological truth. For the impact of all the diagonals in the painting draws attention to the God who alone can bring order out of the chaos of human living. But in Lazarus’s body we are taken beyond this assertion. For its cruciform shape invites us to recognise that order is bought at a cost. It comes through sacrifice, a sacrifice and truth none of us can avoid.

If we keep our focus on the figures of Christ and of Lazarus, and the space between them, we see how various human beings respond to this truth. For the man holding Lazarus, the body in his arms is the focus, as the stiffness of the rigor mortis which Caravaggio brilliantly depicts, begins to soften, the breath of life restored to him. Mary and Martha also gaze at Lazarus. Which is right. Here, their long-lost brother and friend is restored to life. We are brought truly alive, we are made fully human, citizens of the kingdom, in our relationships with, our responsibilities to those closest to us, to our neighbours. If we persist with this cluster around Lazarus we can see the wonderful way in which Caravaggio has shown this journey to full humanity. Begin beneath the left hand of Lazarus with the skull to which his stiffened hand points. Follow the line up through this hand to his face, as he catches Martha’s breath in his nostrils – a remembrance of the moment when God breathes into the nostrils of Adam to create the first human life – and then finally move upwards to Mary Magdalen’s face. And note there, the serenity of one – historically viewed as a notable sinner – who has now been utterly transformed. For this vertical axis from skull to Magdalen represents the redemptive journey into which all are called. We are not to be beings who are in reality half dead, no, we are to catch the breath of the Spirit, and attain to that serenity and liveliness we see in Mary’s face.

Notice next the complementary figures who cluster around Christ, particularly the three faces above, beneath and to the right of his outstretched arm, all of whom look towards him, but none of whom looks at him, for he is not the focus – as the darkness of his face makes explicit – but rather, the channel through which divine light and life flows. These three figures represent different stages of human enlightenment, of discipleship. The lowest face is one of bewilderment. This gravedigger senses something is happening. But he knows not what. The face above Christ’s arm – this is believed to be that of Caravaggio – is, by contrast, one of wide-eyed hopefulness. The artist, like Mary Magdalen – his position stage left compliments hers stage right – was also viewed as a considerable sinner (he was known to have murdered a man in a dual). He clutches his hands together fervently in prayer, as he is drawn to the divine light of revelation. His is a heartfelt desire for the healing power of this light, coming from one who knows his need of transformation. At the end of Christ’s hand the third figure here is touched on the forehead by his outstretched finger. As so often in the Gospels, it is the least likely – a centurion next to a cross, a Roman Governor at his wits end or, as here, an old gravedigger – who understand what’s going on. This gravedigger is neither bewildered nor earnestly hopeful. For he knows this to be his moment of epiphany. The light of God transfigures his features roughened by years of grave digging. His wide-mouthed gratitude compliments Mary Magdalen’s poised serenity. The two of them are what each of us human beings could be.

But between them, notice the raised hand of Lazarus, the hand which Caravaggio has placed at the exact centre of the canvas, and which is now beginning to come to life. There is in fact an ambiguity to this hand. At one level, it is a symbol of resurrection, of new life, of a call to which response has been made. But at another level is Lazarus trying to receive, to catch the light in his hand, or to shield himself from it, even to refuse it? There’s a tremendous sense of tension here at the heart of the painting. And this is a tension we inhabit all the time, of course, but we have a particularly striking example of it at the moment in the life of the Anglican Communion. For many of its leaders – and a lot of others too – seem to be spending a good deal of their time holding up their hands to say no to their fellow Christians, to deny their status as disciples because though these Christians have responded to the gift of divine love, to the God who dwells with us, by living in loving and faithful relationships themselves, these relationships happen to be with people of the same gender. It’s all, as you’ll have noticed, got rather out of hand, with the Church – which is not meant to be a fortress for prejudice but a channel of love and grace – making itself look silly, inconsequential, an irrelevance even, in the context of today’s world. But try as many may to block the light of Christ, to deny divine love reflected in relationships in which it is clearly present, their attempt is surely doomed ultimately to failure. For if we look again at Lazarus’s upraised right hand, we notice that it ought to cast a shadow over the whole of Mary’s face. And indeed, it does cast a shadow over some of it – just as the contemporary Church’s inability to affirm the humanity and relationships of too many in today’s world casts a shadow of disgrace on itself – but it doesn’t and cannot cast a shadow on the whole. For in a wonderful pictorial conceit Caravaggio conveys the greatest theological truth of all, which is that nothing – not even the Church at its most narrow-minded and obstructionist – can stop divine light getting through, nothing can prevent the promise of Calvary and of the Empty Tomb – God’s love for each and every one of us, for who we are – being recognised and cherished. Thanks be to God.

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