In 1609 Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was fleeing from the latest mishap he had gotten into. Passing through Messina, he was commissioned for a canvas by the Lazzari family, and inspired by their last name, Merisi suggested the theme of the Resurrection of Lazarus, an idea which was warmly welcomed. Here the darker tones that would characterize the latter part of his career first make their appearance. The body of Lazarus shows muscles by then gone soft, and he is placed at the center of the scene in a pose reminiscent of a crucifixion; in the Gospels this episode foreshadows the Resurrection of Christ. Differing from other works with the same subject matter, the protagonist of this canvas is not Jesus, but Lazarus himself: not He who works miracles, but he who experiences them. The episode seen from this point of view takes on more intimate, existential tones, and it’s not hard to imagine how Caravaggio identified with that body asking for salvation from death and sin.
From a stylistic point of view, it is an important example of one of the great innovations that Merisi would bring to painting (and sculpture) of the 1600s: the use of light is pioneering for the way it is gauged and guided by a calibrated structure, comparable to the study of light that a film or theater director would make. Here Caravaggio spotlights his stage and symbolically directs the light, hitting the arm and shoulder of Jesus, and landing in a strip of salvific light that floods over the body of Lazarus. Painters like De La Tour, Gentileschi, and Honthorst would later adopt this element as an inheritance from the master.