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Lazarus: from the Bible to Bowie

This morning I was just finishing up a post about Lazarus and the arts. Last Friday, I got inspired by the title of Bowie’s new song and his musical. For me this was a perfect occasion to write about the importance of the figure of Lazarus in art history. I named the piece Lazarus, from the Bible to Bowie. I had written a solid base and had added some witty elements to the article. All was well. And than I saw the news of the tragic and unexpected passing of David Bowie.

The subject and the video, where we see Bowie perform as Lazarus, now have a whole new meaning to me than they did this weekend. Nevertheless, I would like to share my post with you. I hope it will give some insight to the figure of Lazarus and to Bowie’s personification of him.

Lazarus is a well known figure in the New Testament. It is the man that is brought back to life by Jesus Christ, four days after having died (Gospel of John). Just like the Three Magi, people from the Bible apparently can stand the test of time quite well. Lazarus has been a popular subject in art history for centuries.

What is so interesting about the story of Lazarus as a subject of study, is that the depicted moment is almost always the same. The artist shows us the actual raising of the dead man. This makes sense, since it must be made clear to the audience immediately. The Raising of Lazarus is one of the great miracles by Christ. It therefor must be instantly acknowledged by the viewer as such.

The variation between the multiple version lies in the manner in which the artist chooses to depict this moment and the main characters acting in it.

This has given us great diversity throughout the times, as the following works will demonstrate.

Lazarus in the Late Middle Ages
Please take a look at this early version of Lazarus, by the Italian artist Duccio in 1310.

van bijbel tot bowie Duccio
Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Raising of Lazarus,
1310–11. Tempera and gold on panel, 43.5 x 46.4 cm. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth (Texas).

This is a decent version of the Raising. Christ, recognizable by his red and blue cloak en the golden circle (nimbus) around his head, is standing at the grave of Lazarus. The tombstone is removed, and look at the miracle: he is alive! In art, the white bindings around his body is one of the main characteristics of Lazarus, so that is something to remember.

Like I said, this is a fairly neat painting. However, there is a funny detail: the man in yellow next to the grave is holding his cloak in front of his nose. Logical, when you consider the fact that Lazarus had been dead for four days. He shorely reeks. This is a gesture that you will also see often in Lazarus paintings.

The two women next to Jesus are the sisters of Lazarus, Maria and Martha. Maria is sitting at the feet of the savior. This compository element we will also identify in the next painting.


van bijbel naar Bowie 2
Sebastiano del Piombo, The Raising of Lazarus, c. 1517-19. Oil on canvas, transferred from wood, 381 x 289.6 cm. The National Gallery, London.

Lazarus & the Italian Renaissance
Fast forward, 200 years later. One of Michelangelo’s protégés Sebastiano del Piombo (c. 1485-1547) paints his own version of the Raising. Apart from the fact that techniques have changed over the last two centuries, it is now highly fashionable to show the atonomy of the human body in all it’s glory. And that is exactly what we are looking at here.

This Lazarus was a healty guy. Look at the muscle tone of his body. To emphasize that perfection, Del Piombo has reduced the bindings to the mere minimum. Not exactly the image of a man that has been lying in a grave for four days.

His smell is still not that well, though, as we can tell from the reactions of the ladies in green and yellow standing in front of the tree. They, like the man in yellow in Duccio’s work, are covering up their noses.

Jesus has not changed all that much. He is dressed in the same type of clothing and colors. He has lost his nimbus, however. You can also see that Del Piombo has made an effort in showing his toned legs. They are shaped like a classical Greek statue. A sign of the times. Lazarus’ sister Maria again can be found next to Christ’s feet.

Fun fact: Look at how Michelangelo depicts bodies, like in the Sistine Chaple, which he worked on in this period. Do you see the resemblance? That is because Michelangelo provided sketches to his friend Del Piombo for this painting.

Vincent van Gogh, The raising of Lazarus, 1890. Oil on canvas, 50cm x 65.5 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Lazarus & Van Gogh
Let’s look at one last example, nearly 400 years later. It is painted in a totally different style, with an original composition and by one of the Dutch heroes in art.

Not often does Vincent van Gogh (1853- 1890) paints a biblical scene. A couple of months before he dies, however, he delivers this version of Lazarus. At that time, he is living in a mental hospital in Saint-Rémy. It is a time when his mental health is unstable.

Two things strike me about this work.

First of all, Christ is missing. Van Gogh zooms in on the moment when the sisters are reunited with their brother.

Second: Lazarus has a red beard. This is why some claim that this is a self-portrait of the artist. It makes me wonder. Would Van Gogh have made this in a good period, because he identifies himself with a man that rises from death?

Lazarus & Bowie
Now we arrive at the most recent version of Lazarus, that of David Bowie and director Johan Renck.
This is a frightful one, especially in light of the sad news we received today. The idea that Bowie must have known that death would soon be upon him, makes it all the more impressive and makes me look at the images in a different way. Details of the video now have a new meaning to me, whether deliberately or accidentally.

Bowie is putting words on paper like a mad man. Is he writing his farewell letter?
On his desk we can see a skull. Is this meant as an omen?
At the end of the video, Bowie walks backwards into a dark closet. It looks to me as if he is fighting the motion, but that he stands no chance and has to surrender to it. In my mind, this is like an announcement of his forthcoming passing.

A question that has been on my mind since this morning: Why did Bowie choose to impersonate Lazarus? Did he wanted to tell us he was dying, but he will be brought back to live, so to speak, by the legacy of his music?

Art can raise big questions like these. An ancient theme can hence be redefined on so many levels. Even in a most painful way.

We say goodbye to a true artist. He will be missed.

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