October 31, 2017
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Raising of Lazarus: Large Plate (XIII/XIII), c.1632, etching, 14 5/8 x 10 3/16 inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, purchase/gift of Mahonri M. Young Estate, 1959.
On this day in 1517, Martin Luther posted 95 theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, thus beginning what will later be known as the Protestant Reformation. To honor this historic moment, we have selected an etching by Rembrandt of the raising of Lazarus. The subject of Lazarus’ miraculous revival, a popular theme throughout Christian art, took on pointed applications among Protestant believers. In a sermon of 1518, Martin Luther discussed the raising of Lazarus as a type of Christ’s ability to save even those sinners who have transgressed beyond all bounds of propriety. Luther stressed trusting in the grace of God to bring salvation above relying on individual works.
In this rendering of the story, Rembrandt evokes the drama and poignant theatricality inherent in such a moment. Christ’s uplifted hand forms the apex of a triangle that extends down to the brightly illuminated Lazarus and outwards to onlookers at right. The gathered mourners respond in shock, as do the disciples grouped behind Christ, their strong gestures conveying similar awe. The hanging armaments–signifying victory in battle–refer to the apocryphal legend that identified Lazarus as a warrior; however, they also connect Lazarus’ triumph over death with Christ’s own victory over the grave in traditional Northern visual traditions.