Piombo’s ‘Raising of Lazarus’ | A History of the National Gallery in Six Paintings

Piombo’s ‘Raising of Lazarus’ | A History of the National Gallery in Six Paintings


Hello and welcome to the National Gallery. My name is Matthias Wivel and I am the curator of 16th-century
Italian paintings here at the Gallery, ie this room
and the rooms to either side here. I’ll be speaking
about this very large painting, the second-largest painting
in the Gallery and one of the oldest in terms
of when it entered the collection, because it carries the inventory number
NG number 1. The paintings acquired for the nation
for the Gallery all have NG numbers
and this is the first one. It was part of the Angerstein collection, which was a private collection
established by a banker, and that collection,
along with the Beaumont collection, formed the incipient National Gallery
in 1824. They were acquired for the nation for the purpose of establishing a gallery
for the people. And this is the first talk
in a series of six that charts the history of the
National Gallery through six paintings. So appropriately we start
with the one given number 1. Obviously it entered the collection
along with a number of other paintings, but it was judged so important
that it was given the first number. Today it’s possibly a painting
that a lot of people walk by on their way to our famous Bronzino, our Michelangelos, our Titians in here, the Veronese and Tintoretto and other
things in there, great Venetian paintings. It’s a little bit of a difficult painting. It’s a painting that rewards concentration
and close viewing, though, and engagement, so I will try to unpack it
a little bit here. It is painted by Sebastiano del Piombo, a painter from Venice working in Rome, and he painted this between 1516 and 1519. He did it with the assistance of
a close friend and associate at this time, who was a lot more famous and today is even more famous
than he himself was, and that was Michelangelo. I will get into that a little bit later. First I want to talk a little bit
about what you see, to get you into the painting. This is a depiction of the story
of the raising of Lazarus. It’s told in the Gospel of John,
chapter 11, and it’s about Christ
coming back to Judea, to Bethany, to see his friends
Mary, Martha and Lazarus. He has gotten word
that Lazarus is sick to death and has been called back, but it’s also a bit dangerous for him because the people of Judea have threatened to stone him
just some days previously and therefore he’s not there. But he hears that his friend is dying. He still waits for four days
before going back and by that time Lazarus is dead. So this is the moment when he comes back, but there are several moments
collapsed into one here. He comes back with his disciples. You see Christ there in the middle,
and behind him are his disciples. In front of him is Mary,
the sister of Lazarus, who is often conflated
with Mary Magdalene. She’s not necessarily the same person
but they’re often conflated and were often conflated
in the 16th century. And behind them is another woman
and that’s Martha, and she recoils, as you see here. Just before the scene you see here, she has berated Jesus
that he did not come back earlier. “If you had been here earlier,
my brother would not be dead.” And he says,
“Your brother will rise again. I am the resurrection and the life. If you believe in me, you will never die.” And she says, “Well, that’s true, on
the final day we will all be resurrected.” And he says, “No, it’ll happen now.” And that’s then what happens here.
He says, “Lazarus, come forth.” Lazarus has been laid in his tomb and then he rises from the tomb
in his burial shroud, life comes back to his body
and he is resurrected. So that’s the miracle you see here. He’s pointing towards Lazarus, a very muscular Lazarus
who’s just been to the gym before dying, who looks up at Christ with a shocked… You can feel there’s a sense
of physical shock in the body of Lazarus. It’s still stiff with rigor mortis.
You see it’s a stiff body. It has a different pallor than the skin
that you see on the characters around it. It has this deathly pallor.
He’s laid in the tomb for four days. But he has that wide-eyed stare at Christ. This is the moment
where Christ speaks those words. At the same time, Martha is overcome, probably by the admonishment
she’s received from her friend Jesus but also by the miracle that’s happened. She’s shocked. And this is really what Sebastiano
is trying to convey here, the reaction to the miracle. So you see that,
you see Christ speaking the words, you see Lazarus waking
and the life returning to his body and the physical shock of… You almost see somebody
being revived by CPR and they get the heart beating again
and they wake up. You’ve seen that in films
and maybe in real life. But it’s a very physically powerful moment and I think
that’s what he’s trying to get at here. The people around Christ and Lazarus
react in various ways. I’ve talked about Martha. Mary, who’s dressed in yellow
and therefore attracts our attention, has fallen on her knees. She recognises the miracle. As in the Gospel,
she already knows that… She has confidence that Christ will help
even though her brother is dead and she recognises the miracle. As does Saint Peter, who’s here, who also falls to his knees
and clasps his hands in prayer. Behind him, the disciples
are reacting in a variety of ways and they’re discussing what has happened. They may not quite have understood
the significance of it. So there’s discussion going on, there is curiosity,
there is disbelief to a certain extent, and that disbelief is enhanced even more
in the Pharisees you see, the people of the town you see
on the other side, who are reacting in shock, in disbelief,
some are holding their noses. These women behind Martha are holding
their noses at the stench from the tomb, the stench of the rot in the tomb,
also described in the Gospel. So they’re holding their noses at that. And others are disbelieving, maybe
even a bit angry, some of them horrified. There’s a variety of reactions. And I think this is very important
to understanding the painting. Sebastiano here is not trying to tell us
what to think about this miracle. He’s telling us
to think about the miracle. Just like the characters,
and there are 40 figures, which he stressed
when he was trying to collect money. He’s painted 40 figures.
“I should have some more money.” 40 figures. It’s a lot of figures to have,
even in a large altarpiece. And they’re life-size. All 40 figures react in different ways. There are even the attendants of Christ
over here… attendants of Lazarus who have not recognised
the significance of this miracle because they’re trying to solve
a practical problem of unwrapping Lazarus. So they’re like contractors and they’re having a conversation,
“How do we unwrap him here? If you hold his arm, I can do this.” There’s that kind of conversation
going on there. So, just like those figures, we are encouraged to contemplate, discuss, understand what has happened
and interpret it. So I think it’s a very pedagogical picture
in that way. And this is quite characteristic
of Sebastiano at this moment, he’s very interested
in encouraging engagement in this way, intellectual engagement, theological
engagement, emotional engagement. So that’s the story that’s being told. It is painted with great confidence
in oil on a panel. One problem
of encountering this painting today is that when it was
in the Orléans collection in France… So the Duke of Orléans
was the temporary ruler of France and amassed one of the most important
collections in the 18th century of European art. He took this out of the church in France,
in Narbonne, where it was meant for – I’ll get back to that later – and brought it to Paris. And there in the early 18th century it was transferred
from the original panel to canvas. It was a pioneering technique they had for transferring panel paintings to canvas
in order to preserve them. It was believed
that would preserve them in the more humid climate
of northern France. There was concern
that panels might warp and crack in ways that damaged the paintings. But actually they did much more damage
by removing the paint and sticking it onto canvas. Very complicated techniques
that involved various chemicals and also hacking away
the panel from the back. So therefore what you see here
is a severely damaged painting which has gone through several
re-linings since then of the canvas. It’s been put onto new canvases and is currently sitting
on a very thin composite board, sort of a glorified MDF board. The last very important restoration
in the 1960s, it was transferred to that. It’s also in a fragile state
in that respect and so it only moves very rarely. So therefore the surface you see
is not nearly as lush as it would have been
when Sebastiano painted it, nor are the colours fully as vivid
as they were. They’re quite vivid
but they were much more vivid at the time. Some have darkened over time, especially, you see, that dark area
at the top right there, very dark. That would have been
much easier to make out. It’s probably a rock with trees and bushes growing on it,
but it’s a little bit hard. There’s a textured element you see up in
the right corner, a textured part of it, and it’s very hard to make out
what exactly it is. Sebastiano, as I said, hailed from Venice. He had come to Rome in 1511 as the most sophisticated oil painter
in the Venetian tradition, and Venetians were ahead of the curve
in Italy in terms of applying oil and working with oil paint. And this is why he was brought to Rome, because of his skills in painting. At this point, Sebastiano
was more sophisticated than Titian, his slightly younger contemporary. They had become artists together and they were quite close. Titian was about five years younger and was not regarded yet as the great
master that he would become in Venice. Also one might say that Sebastiano
prepared his way by leaving Venice and leaving the scene open to Titian. So Sebastiano came to Rome and immediately became embroiled in the very competitive milieu there. This was at the time when Rome was experiencing
urban renewal at a very grand scale under Julius II. He had various very important artists
working for him, among them Bramante, the great architect who was the architect of St Peter’s
at this time, the new St Peter’s
that Julius wanted to build. There was an old basilica
and he wanted to build a new one. There was Michelangelo,
who had come in 1505, 1506 to sculpt the tomb of Julius II, this enormous tomb
with about 40 life-size figures that he was supposed to sculpt
for Julius II. It never happened, it ended up
much smaller many years later. And then there was Raphael. Raphael had arrived in 1508. And when Sebastiano arrived, Raphael was quickly becoming
the most sought-after painter in Rome. He was threatening
Michelangelo’s position. Michelangelo was painting
the Sistine Chapel ceiling, also commissioned by Julius II, and Raphael was painting
in the papal apartments right next door, including the famous
Stanza della Segnatura where the school of Athens was. He was painting that,
his most famous work. So Michelangelo felt threatened
by this young upstart Raphael, who he had known in Florence before. They had met in Florence
and been friendly, but by this time Raphael was really… He felt he was threatening his position because he was an oil painter
and extremely efficient, very charming, very charismatic,
everybody liked him. Michelangelo was difficult. Michelangelo was grumpy and dirty
and never washed and so on and was not a people person. And Raphael was charming and beautiful
and had a lot of success. That also played into it.
They were very different characters. Michelangelo felt resentment to Raphael,
also because Raphael stole his ideas. He took ideas from the Sistine ceiling. When Michelangelo was not there he would
sneak in, look at it and copy things down or even get to his drawings
and copy them, then go and apply those ideas
in his own paintings right next door and transform them into his own. This really bothered Michelangelo, he saw his ideas transformed by someone
who was probably as gifted as he was. So when Sebastiano arrives, we have an oil painter
of great, great skill who knows things that even Raphael
doesn’t know in oil painting, so Raphael feels threatened
by Sebastiano. They’re working right next to each other
for a private client in what is now called the Villa Farnesina, which was owned by a very wealthy banker
called Agostino Chigi. They worked
right next to each other there and probably developed their rivalry
at that point. So they very closely followed each other
at this time and Michelangelo recognised
that Sebastiano was somebody who could help consolidate
a position opposite Raphael with his help, maybe. He had the Venetian colour,
the Venetian approach to oil painting and Michelangelo could draw
like nobody else and had an inventive mind
like nobody else. So he proposed to Sebastiano that
they worked together on certain things. He would provide Sebastiano with drawings
that he would then use in his paintings. This lasted for a number of years.
They became very close. It lasted for two decades, but it was especially in the 1510s that they were extremely close
in terms of creative collaboration. And then we get to this painting. This painting was commissioned a few years
into Sebastiano’s presence in Rome by Giulio de’ Medici, who was nephew
to the Pope, Leo X at this time. Julius II had died, Leo X was the new Pope and his nephew Giulio de’ Medici was very powerful at the curia, he was made a cardinal by his uncle and he had a very sensitive mind and aesthetic sense. He was a great patron of the arts. He became Michelangelo’s
most important patron for a long while and indeed Sebastiano’s and Raphael’s. And he commissioned this painting
and also a painting from Raphael, two great altarpieces
for a church that I mentioned earlier at Narbonne in southern France. This church was very politically important because Leo X was trying
to heal a conflict with France that the papal state had had
under Julius II. They’d been at war and he was trying to heal the breach
between these two great powers. This bishopric
was symbolically important to that. And he awarded the position of archbishop
to his nephew Giulio de’ Medici, who never went there. It was very lucrative
and politically important. He never went there but he recognised
he had to do something for this church and therefore he would commission
the two greatest painters in Rome to paint altarpieces for it. And this put Raphael and Sebastiano
in direct competition with each other. This happened in 1516. By that time Michelangelo had been sent
to Florence, his home town, to work on Medici projects there. The Pope was a Medici
and his nephew was Giulio de’ Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence. Very important projects, the facade of the church of San Lorenzo
for Michelangelo and later the Medici Chapel
and the Laurentian Library that he built in Florence. So he was there for the next many years. So Sebastiano was on his own at this time
and he started painting this and he knew
that he had to measure up to Raphael, who was enormously inventive
and great at composition. And when you look at this composition you
see it doesn’t quite cohere as a whole, especially when you look at Raphael
where everything coheres and you can’t remove a single figure
without it falling apart. Everything is co-dependent in Raphael. Here you have these clusters of figures around the panel that are probably organised in that way. He would start drawing
in the Venetian manner, he would plan segments of the composition then put them together
as he was painting, then return to drawing to work out an idea
and then return to painting. It was a very organic way of working
that the Venetians practised, whereas Raphael was trained
in central Italy, in Florence and before that in Umbria, and he would plan everything meticulously
in drawing before even thinking about painting. So everything, the whole composition
would be planned out, at various stages and various scales, and then transferred one to one, full-sized drawings transferred onto the panel or the wall
or whatever they were painting to be painted there. So everything was pre-planned. This was not how Sebastiano worked. This was how Michelangelo and Raphael
worked, but not how Sebastiano worked. When we look at infrareds of this picture we can see that there are
many changes to the figures. He’s changed a lot of things
while painting, which was a very Venetian way of working. There is underdrawing done with a brush but not transferred
from a full-size drawing, a cartoon. It’s not the kind of mechanical line
you get from a cartoon, like you see in young Michelangelo’s
unfinished painting the ‘Manchester Madonna’. If you look at that afterwards you’ll see
how the lines are kind of mechanical. It’s because they’re transferred lines,
they’re not freehand, extemporal drawings. It’s in the two angels on the left, you’ll
see the drawings when you go closer. This is the Florentine way of working. Here the drawing is freehand,
done with the point of the brush, maybe based on sketches
but not directly transferred. So he’s working on this
and Raphael hasn’t started his. He’s so busy at this time,
he’s working on the papal apartments, he’s decorating other parts
of the Vatican Palace, he’s been appointed overseer
of archaeology in Rome and will soon be appointed
architect of St Peter’s. So he’s very busy
and manages a huge workshop, whereas Sebastiano’s
is a much smaller operation. He’s painting this
and wants to keep it from Raphael. There’s a correspondence
between Sebastiano and Michelangelo and various allies they have, and when reading
this very vivid correspondence you feel the threat that Sebastiano
is sensing from Raphael. Raphael is trying to sabotage it and he doesn’t want Raphael to see it so he’s trying to keep him out because he doesn’t want Raphael to
get one up on him by stealing his ideas, which he actually ended up doing. Raphael stole from the best of them
and, as I said, made things his own. So there’s this real sense of threat and it’s a very overheated situation. And Michelangelo comes back
to ratify a contract with the Pope for his Medici projects in Florence
in January of 1518. And what happens then
is they look at this painting together. We’ve discovered this recently by looking
at the infrareds of this painting. He says, “Why don’t I help you out
a little bit here? Your figure of Lazarus” –
which is not the figure we see here – “is kind of limp,
he gets lost in the action.” And indeed, under this figure is a figure that’s much more rigid
and smaller and would get lost. And we have a sketch by Sebastiano
that has this figure. So Sebastiano had done one of the most
important figures in the composition and it was not quite there. So we have a couple of drawings
that Michelangelo did… sketches that he did for Sebastiano
at this stage to improve this figure. And indeed the figure you see here,
along with the attendant in front, and possibly the attendant behind
although probably not, are designed by Michelangelo. Those are the parts done by Michelangelo
in this painting. He hasn’t painted them
but he did the drawings for them and then Sebastiano interpreted
those drawings in the painting and he changed it twice
based on these drawings. One of the original ideas
from Michelangelo’s point of view that Sebastiano ended up changing was that Lazarus
had his hand outstretched, just like the famous Creation of Man
on the Sistine Chapel ceiling where the two fingers meet, where God gives life to Adam. Life is also being given here,
or returned. Initially the idea was
for the fingers to meet but Sebastiano had already painted Christ and there was no real room for his hand
to be outstretched and meet Christ’s hand. And also the scale was wrong,
this figure was too big already. You see the scale is not quite right? And if you walk up close to it you can actually see
the ghost of that arm outstretched where Martha’s dress is, that kind of dead area where
Martha’s dress is was his hand originally. So he decided to pull it back and indeed of course Lazarus is
resurrected not by touch but by the word. “Lazarus, come forth” is what Christ is
saying, so he’s resurrected by the word. So he ended up with this moment of torsion where he turns his body
and his arm is across his chest. And that’s what they settled on,
or what Sebastiano decided, because Michelangelo left again,
he was only there for a few weeks. It was finished in May of 1519 and it was received with great enthusiasm
at the papal court and the Pope loved it and so on. Raphael had not quite finished his yet
but did so soon afterwards. Almost, because he died
before he finished it fully. And that painting is
‘The Transfiguration’. It is now in the Vatican Palace,
it’s a fantastic painting that shows Christ being transfigured
on Mount Tabor. He’s floating in the air,
his divinity is confirmed. He’s surrounded by two prophets,
Moses and Elijah, and then under him are the disciples trying to heal a possessed boy
and failing. Christ will come down from the mountain
and heal him because only Christ can do that,
can drive out the devil. That’s the message of the painting. It’s an extraordinary composition
that conflates two different stories and it steals a lot from this
and improves on it. I think if the two were shown together
people would probably prefer Raphael, and that’s indeed
what happened at the time because Raphael
is just so great at compositions. That’s what happened at the time because
the two paintings were exhibited together. So this was like the rivalry of
the two artists exemplified in that way. Everybody in Rome was talking about it, these two great altarpieces
that were exhibited together. But Raphael had died. The first place where Raphael’s great altarpiece was
exhibited and where people came to see it was above his bier in his studio, where he lay in state after he died. He died very suddenly and it was
an extreme shock to everybody, including – there’s a letter –
Sebastiano and Michelangelo. Sebastiano sends a letter to Michelangelo
saying, “I’m sure you’ve heard of Raphael’s death.
God rest his soul. Now, to move on to the next…” He probably didn’t feel
that sorry about it but he was shocked. Then he moves on to their business and how he can maybe move in and take over
some of Raphael’s commissions with Michelangelo’s help. So this is the kind of situation we have. Michelangelo kind of hated Raphael by this
point and did for the rest of his life. We have him talking about Raphael
much later in life, saying, “Everything he got, he got from me.
He stole everything.” So he really hated this guy. But he was out of the picture and Sebastiano became the most important
painter in Rome for the next many years, until Michelangelo returned in 1534 to paint ‘The Last Judgment’
in the Sistine Chapel, by which time the two of them fell out
and didn’t speak again. It is clear, I think, to most people… Even if I asked you cold, “Which part
do you think Michelangelo designed?” after thinking a bit
you might point to Lazarus. And that’s because Michelangelo couldn’t
design a boring figure if he tried. Every time he designed a figure,
it was memorable. This is what’s happened here. Sebastiano did not have that gift,
he could not quite do that. The figure of Christ I think was designed
by him and is quite memorable, but it’s based on various ideas
by Michelangelo. So he’s looking very closely
at Michelangelo. The choice of colour…
You see many very bright colours here. These strong pastels, the pink. Christ is the only one in pink,
so he’s really accentuated that way. The pinks,
the various different greens you see. Every green here is different,
slightly different. He’s showing off how he can manipulate
chromatically a hue across the canvas. So we have apple greens, bottle greens,
moss greens and so on. And he really shows off
what he can do in oil paint. Raphael learnt from this and used it and did something maybe even more amazing,
at least as amazing. So that’s what he’s doing, and then he’s
painting this glorious landscape behind, which is very Venetian in character. I should just say about the colours. They are not very Venetian. The technique is Venetian,
the idea of applying many layers of colour and translucent glazing across the top
to have it really glow. You see some of that in Martha’s dress, where it’s underpainted in red
and then gone over in blue. And that gives it a depth of hue and a quality that you wouldn’t
usually get in central Italian painting. He’s very good at adding those things. Also this transition from green to yellow by shading Mary’s yellow dress
with greens. There are also just elegant details – all the whites, the concentration of white
is in the right part of the painting, it’s almost woven through
all those headscarves, the shroud… There’s less of it here and that sets up a distinction
between right and left in the composition that also has to do with… that undergirds the story
or supports the story. Look at how the white is interwoven
with the other colours over there. It’s very impressive. But the colour choice is not Venetian. The colour choice is very Florentine,
and that’s interesting. It’s more in step with…
when you look at Bronzino over there, the very bright colouring of Mary,
blue and red over there, and other artists of that generation, the so-called Mannerists,
the generation after. This un-naturalistic,
very bright chromatic scale. And that is because Sebastiano had seen Michelangelo working
on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which is full of those extremely bright
non-naturalistic colours. He had probably been up on the scaffolding
with Michelangelo in 1511 and seen him work up there,
seen him paint, and I’m sure it would have blown his mind. Anybody seeing Michelangelo paint
at that scale… It was late in the process, he’d spent
four years on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He wasn’t even preparing drawings
any more, he was just painting. In fresco, it was not oil,
he couldn’t change his mind, but he was so confident,
he could just paint. Sebastiano would have seen that
and it would have gone… It changed his life forever. He was beholden to Michelangelo’s example
for the rest of his life, even though he was an independent artist
with a very different sensibility. But he incorporated and struggled
with this Michelangelesque influence for the rest of his life. And indeed it’s here, not just in the figure designs,
in their monumentality, but in the colours, even though he’s rendered them
with Venetian verve. To return to the landscape, that landscape of course
shows Roman ruins, the kind of ruins
that he would have studied in Rome. He was interested –
we have later anecdotes about Michelangelo and Sebastiano, later when Michelangelo returned
to Florence and before they fell out, where they would go and look at the ruins
together and investigate and learn from antiquity. So he’s painting a Roman campagna, a Roman countryside landscape here. And then he has this light,
this afternoon light shooting across… shooting across the fields
and illuminating them in spots. You almost feel the clouds
passing over the sun and the rays of the sun
dotting the landscape. And that is just something
that is supremely Venetian and what Sebastiano could do better
than anybody in Rome at this time. He’s rivalled in this probably only
by Titian amongst his contemporaries. And it actually also is based
on the Gospel, I think, because Christ’s disciples
come to him and say, “You shouldn’t go back to Judea. You’re taking an enormous risk.
They want to kill you there.” And he says, “The day has 12 hours and people are safe during that time because they’re guided
by the divine light.” And then he goes on to say
that the divine light is not present when it’s dark. And I think Sebastiano
is possibly alluding to that, the passage between light and dark. This is in the afternoon,
it’s not night yet. The sun is there.
Maybe it’s after a storm, who knows. That whole section would have been
much more vivid at the time. It seems quite dark now so some people think
it’s almost nocturnal, an evening, but it would have been much brighter blue. So it’s probably afternoon,
the sun is still up. It’s not a time when it’s quite dark yet. But it looks more like that now. You also see how the light
is passing through the leaves? The edges of the leaves, the brown leaves
are illuminated by the sunlight. This is the kind of thing
that he was supremely good at. So what are we dealing with here? We’re dealing with a composition that
tries to engage us in a divine miracle and give us a feeling of what that is. It encourages us to think about it,
it opens it up to us and it, I think, instils in us
a sense of grandeur and the power of divine intervention. And indeed,
to make a bit of a non-sequitur, Charles Darwin in his study
had a print after this, and various other Old Master paintings. But this painting
was very important to him. Late in life he remembered coming to
the National Gallery to see this painting, aged 15. He mentions various paintings and he says, “The Sebastiano del Piombo
always excited in me a sense of sublimity.” And this is, I think,
exactly what this painting is doing. It gives you that sense
of something greater, something incomprehensible, something in the face of which
we are in a way insignificant, but in which we play a role. This is of course a Romantic ideal, this is something that’s formulated
in the late 18th and early 19th century, but it’s a way of understanding, I think, the feelings that this painting
will elicit in the engaged viewer. Thank you.

14 thoughts on “Piombo’s ‘Raising of Lazarus’ | A History of the National Gallery in Six Paintings

  1. Excellent lecture by Matthias Wivel, fluent, and covering so many facets; of the painting's 'ups-and downs' it's brushwork and narrative, as well as snippets of the relationship between Sebastiano, Michelangelo and Raphael. I can't get to the NG now, but being able to key into these videos is brilliant. A big thanks.  (UK)

  2. I wish Mr Wivel's delivery we're a little less staccato and more relaxed. It is slightly distracting for me.

  3. at15:09, Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici (pope Clement VII) is not a nephew of the Leo X, they are cousins, they had the same paternal grandfather. Leo's father is Lorenzo the magnificent, older brother of Giuliano de' Medici (Clement's father).

  4. Way too much narrative. Camera work is awful. It seems to be the same format with the National gallery. You are ruining the experience. Focus more on the painting you idiots.

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