Saint Lazarus: The Iconography

In Marseille, in France, blessed Lazarus, Bishop, the brother of Saints Mary Madgalene and Martha. In the Gospel we read that the Lord called him friend and raised him from the dead. – Roman Martyrology for December 17

In John 11:1-44 Jesus revives his friend Lazarus, who died four days earlier. That is all that scripture has to say about Lazarus, but the Golden Legend gives him a further adventure.

LAZARUS IN SCRIPTURE

Images of the raising of Lazarus always have Jesus standing a bit apart from Lazarus and gesturing to him. The youthful, beardless Lazarus always stands wrapped in his grave cloths – with his face showing, although the text says it was covered.

In early images such as the sarcophagus relief at right, Jesus is also youthful and beardless. Sometimes he gestures with a wand, a common device in the early art for showing that a miracle is occurring, as in this example. In other cases he raises his hand with the fingers in blessing configuration (example). In John 11 Lazarus has been laid to rest in a "monument" (Latin monumentum, Greek μνημειον), but when Jesus arrives the text says, "but it was a cave." The early images compromise the two terms by showing a temple-like structure built into a mountainside, as at right and in this example.

Medieval artists continue to show Lazarus wrapped in grave cloths. They abandon the wand and usually have Jesus' fingers configured as in blessing. They also often add more of the details from John's text, as in the Giotto's fresco at right. They usually have Martha and Mary, the two sisters of Lazarus, kneel before Jesus, and they include the crowd and at least some of the apostles. In the picture at right and also in another in Assisi, Giotto places two apostles among those taking the body from the tomb, identified by halos.

In his fresco, Giotto even finds a way to express Martha's worry that Lazarus will "stink" if taken out of the tomb. Members of the crowd closest to him cover their noses with cloths. Another image adds the detail of Lazarus' hands being bound and of Martha's rushing out to greet Jesus as he approaches the town.

The tomb is also treated differently in medieval works. In the Latin west, either the text is followed faithfully and the tomb is set in a cave (example), or Lazarus is taken up from a horizontal sarcophagus, resembling the one from which Christ himself will be resurrected (example). In one case the artist compromised by having Lazarus emerge from both a sarcophagus and a monumentum.

Orthodox icons often follow these two options also, but many of them continue to depict a temple-like structure behind Lazarus. They also commonly include the kneeling Mary and Martha.

LAZARUS IN THE GOLDEN LEGEND

The Golden Legend's life of St. Martha has her travel with Lazarus and Mary Magdalene to France, where they convert many to Christianity. The hanging shown at right is an example of images of their journey. (For the origin of this legend see this paragraph in my page on Mary Magdalene.)

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-01-17.

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The earliest Lazarus images were in catacombs and looked like this one from the Catacomb of the Giordani. (Source: Diglot.)


Numerous sarcophagi in the 3rd and 4th centuries followed the pattern of the catacombs images. See the description page for a complete explanation of sarcophagus scenes of this type and the list below of other examples from these centuries.


Giotto, The Raising of Lazarus, 1304-1306 (See description page)


Lazarus arrives in France with his sisters (See description page)

IN 3RD- & 4TH-CENTURY SARCOPHAGI

DATES

  • Feast day: December 17

HAGIOGRAPHY

  • Golden Legend #23 (St. Martha): html or pdf