Jesus had been performing healing throughout his ministry. At times, people seeking him out appeared more interested in relief from their afflictions than to hear his teaching. These ranged from elimination of life long conditions, such as blindness and not being able to move or walk, to casting out of demons. Occasionally, some reported that the person had died, but Jesus assured them that the person was sleeping and would be well when they returned home because of their faith. When Mary and Martha came to Jesus with news that their brother, Lazarus was dying, Jesus assured them that he would be well. When they arrived at his home, he was dead and buried.
Foreshadowing Jesus’ resurrection from death, this stories illustrates Jesus’ power over death. It would be one thing to tell someone that the ill person was sleeping, another to bring back to life someone who was starting to rot. Luca di Tomme ‘s painting in the Vatican highlights the images of Lazarus being dead and buried, as we see him wrapped in cloth propted up in the tomb. Mary and Martha kneel before Jesus in grief and questioning why he had not come sooner to heal Lazarus. The words of Jesus for Lazarus to live again are telegraphed directly in a string of red letters, literally from Jesus’ to Lazarus’ mouth. Just to make sure that you understand the Lazarus is dead and beginning to decay, an on-lookers just outside the tomb holds his nose. Jesus’ desciples stand behind him, each with a halo. As Jesus was now beginning to give signs of his future death and resurrection, he illustrates what will happen to him, but also that his timing is not our timing. So far, his healing ministry has been based on the faith of those who acted in belief of what he could do. But with Lazarus’ raising from the dead, even Mary and Martha who believed in his ability, did not have faith in Jesus’ timing.
Two alternate version of this story are in the Borghese Gallery. Both use the technique of illumiating the scene by having a dark background (death) and strongly lit main characters (life), with gestures guiding our eyes between these characters. In Orbetto’s painting, one of the sisters (either Mary or Martha) knee before Jesus with her back to us. Jesus looks at her and gestures with is right arm toward Lazarus. Lazarus’ body is half reclined and limp, but also his left arm has just begun to reach up. Obbetto’s captures Jesus in the moment of giving life, and Lazarus in the moment of being filled with life again. The woman also gestures toward Lazarus with her left hand. Follow their eyes and arms to find the triangle of the Trinity, again.
Pasquale Ottino also uses the gestures and gaze of Jesus, one of the sisters, and Lazarus to illustrate the moment Lazarus is called back from death. However, Jesus is nearly concealed in shadow, with only his face, left hand, and right arm lit to direct our attention to Lazarus who grasps onto the edge of a sarcophagus, pushing himself up and stepping out with one leg. The sister faces us, looking and gesturing toward Lazarus. Her hand is open in astonishment, while Jesus’ index finger directs us to the message of this act.
As the Jewish leadership began to send spies to follow Jesus and try to trap him violating religious laws, Jesus began to teach by using parables. These stories contained messages imbedded in the narrative. While most of the stories contain potentially rich symbolism, I found few of them illustrated in paintings. Guercino painted one of the most popular parables, The Prodigal Son. The father embraces the son on the right who had taken his inheritance early. He is dressed in scrappy clothing from his farm labors. The younger son, who has remained at home, confronts his older brother scornfully.
But, how should we interpret this parable? Do we see it as a moral story about fathers rejoicing when their sons mature, returning to family traditions? Do we see this as a prophetic analogy about God the Father rejoicing when Jesus returns from his earthly life (not to suggest that Jesus rebelled against God, when he carried out his mission to humanity, but teaching us might be as disgusting as feeding pigs)? Do we see this as a cloaked criticism about God rejoicing when people (Jesus’ followers) repent of their worldly ways, while the loyal son (Jewish leaders) complain that they have been behaving themselves all this time but do not get rewarded?
The location in the Gospels of the story of story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and the parable of the prodigal son is probably not accidental. Both address the issues of resurrection, grieving and rejoicing, and the timing of events being something other than on our human scale.