My next two blogs feature paintings by two different artists, commissioned almost at the same time by the same person, one of which is often looked upon as the greatest painting ever.
My featured artist today is Sebastiano Luciani, who would be better known later as Sebastiano del Piombo for reasons I will explain later. Sebastiano was born around 1485 and his birthplace is thought to have been Venice as he often signed his works Sebastianus Venetus. His first thoughts, regarding what he should do with his life, were to join a religious order and he may well have started along the path towards the priesthood. His first love was not drawing and painting but music. He had a great interest in music and was an accomplished singer and also played many musical instruments, including the lute, which was his favourite. This musical talent of his made him very popular in Venetian society. He did however eventually turn his attention to art when he was about eighteen years of age and his first artistic tuition came from Giovanni Bellini, who was a member of the great Bellini family of Venetian artists and brother-in-law of Andrea Mantegna. Having learnt the basics of art from Bellini he left the studio and became a pupil of Giorgione da Castelfranco, whom he had first met through their joint love of music. Sebastiano and Giorgione had a long association and the early works of the young aspiring painter were greatly influenced by the style and technique of his master, so much so, that some of his early paintings were confused with those of Giorgione.
Giorgione died in 1510 and the other great Venetian artist, Tiziano Vecelli (Titian) was away, working in Padua. Sebastiano was now looked upon as the leading painter in Venice. In early 1511, the Siennese banker, Agostino Chigi, who had become one of the richest men in Rome and a financial backer of the Popes, visited Venice and persuaded Sebastiano to return with him to Rome. Chigi believed that Sebastiano was the greatest living painter in Venice and he wanted him to carry out some work in his newly acquired villa. Chigi was a great lover of the Arts and a wealthy patron of art and literature. Chigi, at that time, owned a suburban villa on the shore of the River Tiber, known as Viridario, but later owners changed its name and it became known asVilla Farnesina. Chigi wanted his residence to be one of the most opulent in the city befitting a man of his standing in society and wanted the best artists of the time to come and decorate the interior. Besides summoning Sebastiano he invited other great painters to put their mark on the villa, such as Giovanni da Udine, Giulio Romano, Sodoma and Raphael Sanzio. Sebastiano worked alongside Raphael on the frescoes for the villa which depicted scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
It was whilst working in Rome that Sebastiano became acquainted with, and became one of the rare and trusted friends of, Michelangelo Buonarroti. According to Vasari, Michelangelo befriended Sebastiano and offered him pictorial designs for him to develop in paint. This friendship however drew Sebastiano into the long running rivalry Michelangelo had with Raphael Sanzio but in a way it had a lot to do with today’s featured work. It is believed that through the good auspices of Michelangelo, Sebastiano was, at the end of 1516, commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici to paint a large altarpiece, depicting the Raising of Lazarus. Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici was appointed to the see of Narbonne, in south-west France, by his cousin Pope Leo X. The painting, along with its proposed companion piece the Transfiguration, which the cardinal had commissioned, shortly before, from Raphael, were to be sent to the cathedral in the Cardinal’s own bishopric in Narbonne, which owned a relic relating to the story of Lazarus. There seems nothing strange about the cardinal commissioning two paintings for the same cathedral but Vasari would have us believe that there was a little devilment with the cardinal’s request as, in a way, it was to pit the two artists against one another and of course the cardinal was well aware of the rivalry between Michelangelo and Raphael as we know Raphael’s “artistic enemy” was Michelangelo, who was therefore only too willing to lend Sebastiano a hand with the work by supplying him with sketches that could be incorporated into the Raising of Lazarus.
The featured painting today, the Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano, is a great example of the highly colourful style of Venetian painting of the time. Sebastiano completed the painting in January 1519 and it was immediately hailed as an artistic triumph. Raphael was concerned that his painting of the Transfiguration was not compared with Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus but the two were seen together in April of the following year, a couple of days after Raphael’s death. Raphael’s painting never went to Narbonne, remaining in Rome whereas Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus eventually went to the French city.
The biblical tale tells us about the request of the sisters Martha and Mary for Jesus to visit the grave of their brother Lazarus and raise him from the dead. In his Gospel, St John divided the story of the miracle into three parts. Firstly, Jesus bids the people to take the stone from the tomb. Next he tells his friend, Lazarus to rise, and finally Jesus tells Lazarus to unbind his shroud and it is this third command to Lazarus that we see in the painting. The painting we see before us is a depiction of a biblical story from the Gospel of Saint John (John: 11). Verses 40 to 44 recount the event:
“…Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
In the background of the painting, we see a cloudy sky being penetrated by a shaft of light. We can make out a distant town by a lake or river. The town is more a depiction of a high-walled fortified Roman town with its large and solidly built bridge, rather than a depiction of somewhere from Sebastiano’s birthplace, Venice. It feels Roman more than Venetian. We see the figure of Christ standing in the foreground, slightly left of centre, He is portrayed theatrically pointing towards the seated figure of Lazarus, who is still partly covered by his burial shroud. It is almost as if Jesus is giving a speech. Jesus needs all his powers of persuasion to bring back Lazarus. It is not so much a command Jesus is giving to Lazarus, more that he is appealing to the old man, his friend, to rise from the dead.
All around, and squeezed tightly into the composition, are men and women all of who pose in a most theatrical manner, due to their shock at seeing Lazarus coming back to life. In the left mid-ground we see a group of Pharisees unimpressed by what they have seen and are still hell-bent on plotting the death of the so-called miracle maker. The various figures in the painting are all clothed differently. It is interesting to take time and study each figure. There is an old man knelt on the lower left, hands clasped in a prayer-like manner as he looks up at Jesus. Look how some of the men and women hold their hands up in horror and look away rather than cast a glimpse on the back-from-the-dead figure of Lazarus. Dramatic poses have been given to Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus. Mary is on her knees to the right of Jesus, her hand placed over her heart. Martha, dressed in a blue robe with a red sash, stands to the right of Jesus, recoiling from what the Biblical passage termed “the bad odour”.
Others talk together discussing what they see before them. Take time and look at all the various expressions on the faces of the people. All these figures are painted in bright colours. The artificial and theatrical gestures we see before us seem almost as if time has come to a standstill. It is like a freeze-frame shot from a film. Lazarus is indeed a strong, mature man and Sebastiano used the red and black chalk drawings given to him by Michelangelo for a preliminary study of the figure of Lazarus and some of his attendants. Three of these drawings still exist and one can be seen at the British Museum in London. The way the figures are portrayed by Sebastiano are depicted in a Michelangelo’s style. A prime example is the depiction of Lazarus. Look at the way Sebastiano has shown him half turned which is often the way a sculptor would position his figure. The arms and legs of Lazarus are so positioned to show off his musculature and sinews. It is so like the work of Michelangelo.
Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici chose to keep Raphael’s Transfiguration for himself and it is now housed in the Vatican Gallery. He sent Sebastiano’s painting to Narbonne. The Raising of Lazarus in now housed in the National Gallery, London. After Raphael’s death, Sebastiano became the leading painter in Rome and he was the first artist to return there after the 1527 Sack of Rome. In 1531, the Pope rewarded his service by making him Keeper of the Papal Seal and it was from this position that Sebastaino became known as Sebastiano del Piombo, (piombo being the Italian word for lead which was used for sealing).
Tomorrow I will look at the companion piece or some would say the “competition” piece to Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus – Raphael Sanzio’s Transfiguration, a painting many art historians believe to be the greatest painting of all time.