SEBASTIANO DEL PIOMBO
Study for the figure of Martha in the Raising of Lazarus
Black and white chalk on blue, ribbed hand-made paper
Inv. No. 399 (Purchased by Johann David Passavant at the auction of the collection of King William II in The Hague, 1850)
28.2 × 22.7 cm
The sceptical Martha was reluctant to believe that Christ would be able to resurrect her dead brother Lazarus. When his tomb was being opened, she underlined her doubt by exclaiming, »Lord, by this time he stinketh« (John11:39). This is the moment captured by Piombo in his chalk drawing on blue paper: Martha is turning away, raising both arms in a vehement gesture of repulsion.
The Raising of Lazarus (ill.), completed in 1519 and now in the National Gallery in London, is the largest painting to have been executed by the Venetian Sebastiano del Piombo. Active in Rome from 1511 onwards, he became embroiled in the rivalry between Raphael and Michelangelo. When Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici was appointed bishop of the southern French town of Narbonne, he commissioned Raphael to undertake a large painting of the Transfiguration for the cathedral there. Possibly at Michelangelo’s instigation, Sebastiano was promptly commissioned to paint a companion piece of equal size, the Raising of Lazarus. Michelangelo assisted him by providing sketches for the work. Nevertheless, Giulio de’ Medici ultimately decided to send only Sebastiano’s painting to the south of France, and to keep Raphael’s Transfiguration – very near completion when the artist died in 1520 – for himself.
This study of Martha is not one of the sketches so helpfully provided by Michelangelo, but Sebastiano’s own work. Whereas Raphael would build up a figure from the inside, on the basis of the anatomy, Sebastiano instead gives it form and expression by means of the bold, solid shapes of the drapery. His technique of drawing with chalk on blue paper – inspired by Venetian tradition – has been employed here as a means of modelling skin surfaces and bringing out the texture of the clothing and the head-dress derived from the local costume of the Roman Campagna. Above the figure of Martha, a number of further astonished witnesses to the miracle are sketched in; the individual to her right could be a tentative version of the figure of Lazarus, though the Lazarus in the painting was presumably based on a sketch by Michelangelo.
Johann David Passavant purchased this work, along with the drawings by Raphael, for the Städel Museum in 1850 at the auction of the collection of King William II of the Netherlands.