Raising of Lazarus | Guercino | 1619
After the baroque / mannerist period, in seventeenth century Italy, artists could be located within 2 trends: those who worked under the Roman-Bolognese classicism and those who did it under the Caravaggist influence.
The classicism reinterpreted Raphael’s work, with predominance of drawing over color, closed compositions (it is, with the figures in the center of the canvas) and characters at rest or in calm. In short, they sought for an art that could express the ideal of beauty of the Renaissance painter.
But years before, Caravaggio had changed the paradigm of Italian art with an approach to painting opposed to classicism, preferring movement, open compositions, contrasts of light and shadow, and his motives reflecting some kind of conflict.
By the end of 1500s, Il Guercino (“the cross-eyed one”) was born. He was practically self-taught until he joined the Accademia founded by the Carraccis, who were purely classicistic. However, the artist was in the middle of the two trends explained above and therefore, although some of his works were classicistic, others were completely inspired by Caravaggio.
The raising of Lazarus is definitely one of the Caravaggesque works. The painting shows the scene related in the Gospel of St. John 11, where Christ raises Lazarus, one of his friends. He had died four days earlier and had been buried in a cave, according to the Jewish custom of the time. All characters in the story are portrayed in the scene: the half-naked Lazarus being untied, Christ pointing at him at the right, Mary and Martha surprised by the resurrection, Jewish priests muttering about the miracle and, at the lower-right corner of the work, a character nauseated by the stench of the tomb. The diagonal composition, the play of light and shadow, the dynamism of the work and movement, are all characteristics of the style of Caravaggio, to which Guercino subscribed. The work takes a supernatural event to reality and that is why the artist only suggests the divinity of Christ by a faint halo: the drama in this painting hasn’t got to do with the miracle in itself. It rather has to do with the experience of witnessing it.