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The Resurrection of Lazarus

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CAT 157. Greig after Jean Jouvenet. The Resurrection of Lazarus. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

The description of The Resurrection of Lazarus in the Historic Gallery emphasizes Jouvenet’s close adherence to the miracle “as related by John the Evangelist.” After Mary, the sister of Lazarus, said to Jesus that her brother would not have died had Jesus been present, “Jesus consoled them, and desired that they would accompany him to the sepulchre. When he arrived at the spot with his apostles, and a great multitude who had followed him, Jesus ordered them to remove the stone which covered the entrance of the tomb, and cried, with a loud voice,--‘Lazarus, come forth.’ Lazarus immediately arose, his head covered with a napkin, and his body enveloped in his shroud. On witnessing this occurrence, a great number of Jews were converted to Christianity.” Jouvenet’s composition is notable for “the dignified tranquillity of our Saviour,--the faith manifested in the countenances of his apostles,--the melting grief of the sisters,--and the astonishment and fear exhibited in the persons who are close to Lazarus” (HG 1, 263-64).

The original painting was “in the Museum at Versailles” when engraved by Grieg. It was later moved to the Louvre. If Melville saw it when he visited both the Louvre and Versailles late in 1849, Jouvenet’s image is likely to have made a strong impression. The painting is nearly thirteen feet tall by twenty-two feet wide. Its many human figures are life-size. Jouvenet gives a strong sense of the descent into the tomb by showing Lazarus nearly in total darkness in the lower left corner of the painting, illuminated by only a single torch (the image is reversed in the engraving). Christ and the figures surrounding him are bathed in the light of the sun (see fig. 1).

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Figure 1. Jean Jouvenet, The Resurrection of Lazarus, oil on canvas, 1706. The Louvre, Paris.

Melville already had Lazarus on his mind in the closing months of 1849. In November he had been going from one publisher to another in London hoping to sell the manuscript of White-Jacket, his fifth novel. The manuscript was not accepted by Richard Bentley until the young author returned from Paris in mid-December. The one direct allusion to Lazarus in the published novel is a memorable one—especially in relation to the painting by Jouvenet. The “surgeon’s assistant” was a “small, pale, hollow-eyed young man” with that “peculiar Lazarus-like expression” whenever he “did emerge into the light of the sun” (NN WJ 326). Melville alluded again to Lazarus in Moby-Dick, the novel he began immediately after returning from London and Paris. After Ishmael has nearly died during his first whale hunt, he feels that “all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection” (NN MD 227-28). In the deceptive world of The Confidence-Man in 1857, Melville struck quite a different tone. Those shady operators who manipulate the money-markets are likened to “sham Lazaruses” who prey upon those they have fleeced (NN CM 48).

Melville got some new information about Jouvenet and The Resurrection of Lazarus in the 1854 edition of The Works of Eminent Masters that he acquired in 1871. After citing comments about Jouvenet’s relation to Le Brun in Voltaire’s Age of Louis XIV, the essay entitled “Jean Jouvenet” takes the reader through each step of the Resurrection painting until “the men who had entered the sepulchre with torches, to open the shroud, fall back stupefied, not at the sight of the dead, but at the sight of the living.” This Lazarus “breathes through livid lips, and looks out from glassy eyes.” We see “the fright, the terror of the men, under whose eyes, hands, the miracle has taken place.” The “lively animation” of those who witness this scene contrasts with “the calm figures of the apostles, who are accustomed to the wonderful works of their divine master. If it not be here, where is the skill of a great painting?” This author indicates that “Jouvenet has painted his own portrait and those of his daughters” among the spectators at the far right of the canvas. In 1713 the aged painter “was seized with paralysis of the whole right side of his body”; no longer able to paint with his right hand, he learned to paint with his left, signing his subsequent works “J. J., deficiente dextrû, sinistrâ pinxit” (Works, 1:55-56). 

Throughout Jouvenet’s entire career, the strong influence of Nicolas Poussin could be seen in the “basic elements of his vocabulary: a lucid composition based on diagonals, the groups of protagonists linked by gestures, unidealized faces and a strong impression of life” (Alegret, 670). In Melville’s collection, these similarities are most easily seen by comparing Jouvenet’s Resurrection of Lazarus with Poussin’s St. Peter & St. John curing the Lame (CAT 141, also from the Historic Gallery). Painted one half century apart, toward the end of each artist’s career, they are highly compatible in subject, spirit, and aesthetic.

Not surprisingly, Melville’s own most direct literary allusion to the resurrection of Lazarus appears in Clarel, his epic Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. During Melville’s own visit to Jerusalem in January 1857, he passed “over Olivet by St: Stephens Gate to Bethany—on a hill—wretched Arab village—fine view Tomb of Lazarus, a mere cave or cell” (NN J 82). A decade later, in the Jerusalem section of Clarel, Melville’s modern-day pilgrims marched “up Olivet” in a “torch-light train,” and over “to Bethany—thro’ stony lane / Went down into the narrow house / Or void cave named from Lazarus.” There, as “flambeaux redden the dark wall,” the warden tells the story of “the man that died / And lived again—bound hand and foot / With grave-clothes, rose—electrified.” After they leave the cave, however, this tomb remains as “vacant” as the one “by Golgotha they show.” As the pilgrims leave Bethany, “Raiser and raised divide one doom; / Both vanished now” (NN C 1.14.84-116).