The Raising of Lazarus, painted by Sebastiano Luciani (1485-1547) – known after 1531 as Sebastiano del Piombo, when Pope Clement VII gave him the ecclesiastical office of Piombatore, which authorised him to wield the lead papal seal, or piombo – was the first work of art to enter the National Gallery’s collection. The decision to celebrate its acquisition coincides with the 500th anniversary of its commission in 1517.

By that time Sebastiano had been in Rome since 1511, having been brought there from Venice by the immensely rich Sienese banker Agostino Chigi to work on the decorations of the Villa Farnesina.

Sebastiano, who was associated with the recently dead Giorgione and also with Titian, was the most advanced of his generation in Venice. Chigi brought in Sebastiano to paint the Villa Farnesina as Titian was otherwise engaged, working on the frescoes of the life of St Anthony in Padua. Raphael had come from Florence to Rome in 1508 and was working on the Stanze (papal apartments) in the Vatican when Sebastiano arrived.

Personal rivalry between Michelangelo, who was completing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael is likely to have encouraged Michelangelo to offer his help in several commissions Sebastiano was working on. Michelangelo helped Sebastiano in his design for the Lamentation over the Dead Christ in Viterbo, with its massive image of the seated Virgin gazing upwards in prayer to the night sky, while the dead Christ is laid out before her, stretched on a shroud. Drawings by Michelangelo were provided for Sebastiano’s use, and the finished effect is monumental.

Sebastiano was put in direct confrontation with Raphael when they were employed by Cardinal Giulio to provide the huge finished altarpieces of The Raising of Lazarus and The Transfiguration – respectively for the Cathedral of Saints Just and Pastor at Narbonne. Raphael’s painting is more gracile than Sebastiano’s, which is more robust. The Lazarus has a gigantismo which relies on Michelangelo’s figures on the Sistine ceiling. If Lazarus were to stand up he would dominate all the other figures, including Christ.

The Michelangelo & Sebastiano exhibition is held in upstairs galleries at the National Gallery, which enables lighting to be adjusted to greater effect than in the exhibition galleries below. The Lazarus has had a new frame made for it which adds gravitas.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection