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Lazarus and the Rich Man

Lazarus and the Rich Man

Marcus Gheeraerts. Museum of the Catherines Convent – Utrecht. Second half of the 16th century.

The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is given in Luke’s Gospel.

There was a rich man who used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast magnificently every day. And at his gate there used to lay a poor man called Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to fill himself with what fell from the rich man’s table. Even dogs came in and licked his sores. Now it happened that the poor man died and was carried away by the angels into Abraham’s embrace. G38

The rich man also died and was buried. In his torment in Hades he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off with Lazarus in his embrace. So he cried out, ”Father Abraham, pity me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue for I am in agony in these flames. “ Abraham said, “My son, remember that during your life you had your fill of good things, just as Lazarus his fill of bad. Now he is being comforted here while you are in agony. But that is not all: between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to prevent those who want to cross from our side to yours or from your side to ours.” G38

So he said, “Father, I beg you then to send Lazarus to my father’s house, since I have five brothers, to give them warning so that they do not come to this place of torment too.“ Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets, let them listen to them.” The rich man replied, “Ah no, father Abraham, but if someone comes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Then Abraham said to him, “If they will not listen either to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.” G38

Marcus Gheeraerts was one of the artisan painters that have almost disappeared from public knowledge over the ages. This was the result of the destruction of many of his works during a Protestant fury against sculptures and pictures that happened in Bruges in 1566. Gheeraerts, born around 1521 in Catholic Bruges, became a Protestant himself, but his companions of the same religion did not spare his work. He was still a painter in Bruges in 1566, but his wife had remained Catholic and when the Spanish Duke of Alba installed a special Council to pacify and counter-reform Bruges, Marcus left the town, alone, without his wife. Gheeraerts went to London. He worked there probably until his death in 1587, but he is also known in the archives of Antwerp where he may have worked occasionally B9 . His son, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, was court painter of Elisabeth I and also of King Charles I’s mother Anne of Denmark. Other court painters at the court of Charles I were Daniel Mytens and Cornelius Johnson, until the Antwerp genius portraitist Anthony van Dyck and the Italian Orazio Gentileschi - and also for two years Artemisia, the daughter of the latter - arrived similarly at the court of England B10 .

Gheeraerts was not the most important painter of Bruges of the sixteenth century. Many painters worked at that time in the town. Better-known masters were Lancelot Blondeel (1498-1561) and Pieter Pourbus (1523/1524-1584). There worked also Frans Pourbus (1545-1591), son of Pieter, Ambrosius Benson (active 1518-1550) who came from the North of Italy, and Adriaan Isenbrant (1480-1551) who worked mainly in the first half of the century. Bruges’ painters had evolved from the International Gothic style of its fifteenth century to knowledge of the Antique themes and the Italian Renaissance. The tastes of Bruges' old wealthy families had changed with the growing number of Protestants to a more secular art, italianised in its themes. In Bruges of the late sixteenth century also, fashion was directed to more worldly themes than the ever present very religious, traditional art. Practically all art remained Christian of inspiration though and among the few paintings Gheeraerts left us is a magnificent ‘Jesus Triumphant’, a Jesus carrying the cross, a picture now in the Memling Museum of the Bruges Saint John’s hospital.

The painting ‘Lazarus and the Rich’ shows a new way of representation as compared to the so well known Flemish Primitive Gothic style. Gheeraerts remained close to the traditional rendering of the parable. Lazarus, the beggar, is lying on the ground, piteously, with his beggar’s staff and meagre belongings in a small bundle next to him. Dogs, symbols of unclean animals in medieval imagery, lick at his wounds and sores. The rich man Epulone is seated on a golden chair at a table filled for a banquet, with all kinds of expensive fruit presented. Epulone is dressed like an oriental satrap; he wears golden slippers and a wide purple mantle. A courtesan and maidservants accompany him, all equally finely dressed. The servants bring the food. The table is set under a canopy supported by wooden mounts, which are sculptured into satyrs and cupids. The feast and the decoration remember us of a Bacchanal. A guard dressed as a Roman soldier holds high a stick, ready to beat away the beggar. Lazarus’ fate is hinted at in the far upper right background; an angel or Abraham rises to the heaven with poor Lazarus.

Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder has painted a Gospel theme. He used Roman and Persian motives (the guard, the dresses of the rich man, the mounts of the canopy, the decoration of the architecture) to indicate that corruption is in these as compared to poor Lazarus. Thus in a strange way, Gheeraerts played on the growing taste for classical themes of the wealthy audience and turned the fashion diligently against the viewers and commissioners of his time. The result is a moral fable in which sympathy should go out to poor Lazarus, even though the decorative elements of the rich table, the canopy, the rich man, the courtesans and the Roman guard would have pleased and impressed innocent viewers. The picture is a splendid example of the newer Italianate style of painting as emerged in Bruges, but mostly in Antwerp at the end of the sixteenth century. Marcus Gheeraerts succeeded in making a picture that would please, while staying faithful to his more strict Protestant ideas. He made a very moralising picture that bears almost no references to spirituality or to religion. A theme from the Gospels was used, but only for its value of moral lesson. This is secularisation of spiritual evangelic messages.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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