One of the most commonly occurring Biblical stories in early Christian art, most of which is to be found in the ancient cemeteries known as the catacombs, is the raising of Lazarus, as recounted in the Gospel of St John 11, 1-45. This is an obvious choice in a funerary context, as an expression of the belief, almost unique to the Christian faith, in the resurrection of the body at the end of the world. Commenting on this passage in his Treatises on the Gospel of St John, (Tract 49), St Augustine says, “(Christ) raised one that stank, but nevertheless in the stinking cadaver there was yet the form of its members; on the last day, with one word He will restore ashes to the flesh.” Dozens of depictions of this story may be seen in frescoes on the walls of the catacombs, and many more carved into marble sarcophagi, almost all of which have long since been removed to various museums.
The Raising of Lazarus, depicted in a 4th-century fresco in the catacomb of the Via Latina.
A considerable number of other Biblical stories which frequently occur in the catacombs (the healing of the blind man in John 9, the story of Susanna in Daniel 13, etc.) are traditionally read at Mass during Lent in the Roman Rite. From this, we may well suppose that a repertoire of such stories, aimed at instructing those who were preparing to be baptized at Easter, already existed when the Church’s liturgical tradition was still in the earliest first stages of its formation. This tradition was then, with the peace of the Church, brought out of the catacombs and into the churches.
As we noted a month ago, each day in Lent has a “station church” in the Roman Rite, a church where it was anciently the custom for the Pope to go and celebrate Mass. Today, the Friday of the Fourth week of Lent, is the day on which the Gospel of the Raising of Lazarus is traditionally read, and the station church is the basilica of St Eusebius on the Esquiline Hill, which fronts on the modern Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele, the largest piazza in Rome. This church was chosen for today because it stands right next to the site of a large necropolis, a “city of the dead”, which dates back even before the founding of Rome itself. Cicero mentions it in his one of his Philippic Orations (4, 17), but it ceased to be used as a burial are thanks to the invention of the Maecenas, the patron of Virgil and Horace, who had area buried and included within his vast gardens. However, when construction of the modern piazza began after 1870, dozens of burials were found throughout the area.
By reading the story of the Raising of Lazarus in this particular place, the Church, led by the bishop of Rome, proclaimed to the ancient pagan world Her belief in the resurrection of the body, made possible by the death and resurrection of the Savior, the celebration of which takes place two weeks from today on Good Friday.