Death threatens life in the story of the raising of Lazarus, and János Vaszary’s Resuscitation of Lazarus invites us into the scene. This 1912 painting is a striking collision of styles: the figures recall the standardized style of Byzantine icons, while the background, color, and expression have a modern, vivid quality. This is revered tradition unfolding in the here and now, much like the Gospel message seeks to imbue our present day.
Vaszary isn’t as much telling the story as inviting us into the heart of it. Instead of a narrative, he offers three key realities symbolized by these figures. On the left, the women crying and imploring are Martha and Mary folding us into the sorrow of fear and loss as their brother is consumed by illness. In the middle, Lazarus hangs naked and limp in the arms of an imposing figure in red—Death. Lazarus’s body brings to mind the body of Christ off the cross, an anti-Pietà with a body that is held here not by a sorrowful mother but a triumphant and defiant Death. On the right, Jesus and the disciples enter to stop him.
Jesus, hand held up in blessing, stops Death in his tracks. As his disciples look to him in wonder, Jesus looks out at us, with a steady confidence that humbles Death’s assumed triumph. Christ addresses us, the viewers, with eternal truth: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.”
A notable expression of the modern style of this icon is the background. Instead of solid gold, we see a dawning sky, another sign of the awakening that is taking place. In the Gospel passage, Jesus teaches the disciples about walking by day versus stumbling at night. With the dawning sky, we can anticipate a steady road ahead, a sure way that leads to salvation and fullness of life. There is powerful symbolism here as Christ’s own path will soon lead him to Jerusalem, Golgotha, and the cross. Knowing the way ahead, Jesus’ act of faith is profound encouragement to dare to look further down the road and trust in God as the Author of Life.
On this fifth Sunday of Lent, we may be at different points along the way: wailing with the women in our sorrow, in the grip of death like Lazarus, wondering at the possibility of faith like the disciples, or facing a hard road ahead. Christ engages us from the painting directly: I am the Way; follow me to the fullness of life.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.