The reading for the 10th Sunday, year C is the account of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, on the occasion of Jesus’ visit to this town during his ministry in Galilee. It gives an answer to the the question St John the Baptist languishing in prison will later pose about Jesus and his identity. It confirms that Jesus’ messianic identity and his status as a great prophet is assured by his actions. Later, in chapter 8, Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus, but already here his power is manifested, echoing that of Elijah, who raised the son of the widow of Zarapheth (1 Kings 17:18-24). St Luke has the miracle repeated in turn in the book of Acts, where St Peter raises Tabitha. The miracle causes a great stir, and reminds the reader of the reaction at the naming of St John the Baptist, and the language of the Benedictus in the early chapters of St Luke’s gospel. The miracle is also remarkable because it comes from Jesus’ compassion for the widow.
The image is frequently found in the iconography of the early Christian church, because, like the account of the raising of Lazarus, (John12), it contains a pre-figuring of Christ’s own resurrection, and shows the power of God to raise the dead. It was this theme which dominated. It is frequently found on sarcophagi: 16 examples have been recorded on Roman sarcophagi and 8 on Gallic ones including one now in the British Museum from Arles and others in Leiden and Oudheden . 1 For the same reasons, it also featured in the decoration of the funerary chapel of the Parecclesion church in Kariye, Turkey, as part of the decoration around the Anastasis. It can be viewed in the Columbia virtual museum version.
There are other examples of the subject in art, such as the Ottonian ivory panel in the British Museum from Magdeburg. However, the raising of the son of the widow of Nain is not frequently found in Medieval, Renaissance or Baroque art, possibly because it did not easily suit an altarpiece, though Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus is one example of a parallel exception. There is a painting by Lucas Cranach, and there are two versions by Veronese, one in the Kunsthistorishes Museum, Vienna, possibly for a scuole, though too small in scale for the fictive architecture in the painting to continue a real setting, as in Titian’s Presentation, which has certainly influenced it and another version, very similar in composition, recently at auction. In both these, Veronese has centred the painting on the intercession of the woman before Christ, with the young man in the left hand lower corner of the scene
One exception from the baroque period is the painting above by Eustache le Sueur (1616-55) from the mid 17th century. It now hangs by the left pillar of the Lady Chapel in the Church of St Roch, Rue St Honore, Paris, but predates the rebuilding of the church (1653-1740) by a few years. Like Charles Lebrun, Le Sueur was a pupil of the classical baroque artist Simon Vouet, and he may have met Poussin on his return to Paris in 1640-2, who certainly influenced his style. He continued to work mainly on religious paintings in the churches around Paris. He was close to the Carthusians in the city and completed a cycle of 22 paintings of scenes from the life of St Bruno for the cloister, now in the Louvre, including St Bruno appearing to Comte Roger; Consecration of a Carthusian Church; St Bruno attending the Sermon of Raymond Diocre; Raymond Diocre answers after his Death and Death of St Bruno. These show his gift for composition, the psychological aspect of a scene and his delicate use of colour, which was influenced by Poussin. He left the Paris guild of artists early on to become a founder member of the Royal Academy of Painting in Paris in 1645. In the Academy, rhetorical gestures in the figures in paintings and the use of colour to affect mood were most important and Raphael was taken as a model. His influence can be seen particularly in le Sueur’s later paintings. The Louvre also has St Paul preaching at Ephesus, another rare subject.
In Le Sueur’s treatment of Jesus raising the son of the widow of Nain, several of the themes in the gospel passage are brought out and combined together, not just the Resurrection: Jesus’ compassion, the theme of Resurrection; the awe and wonder of the crowd at the presence of a great prophet, as well as Jesus’ own sense of the foreboding concerning what is about to come, which in the Gospel is already shown in some reactions of the crowd and in the predicament of St John the Baptist. The composition is classical and rectilinear, with a series of vertical lines and accents and a few diagonals intersecting. Christ is placed just off centre, moving dramatically into the centre of the space from the right. Le Sueur gives Christ a fine ultramarine robe, in the most expensive pigment, brighter than the blue of the sky, modelled in light and shade close to Raphael in technique. Le Sueur was also influenced by Poussin’s use of colour to punctuate the scene, especially the contrasting use of red and blue to emphasise what is most central: around the figure of Christ, there are various shades of red and yellow which accentuate the blue robe of Christ. The tanned complexion of the pall bearer on the left is juxtaposed with the greenish tint of the skin of the just risen son, whilst the widow’s bright yellow robe, which overshadows the golden hue of the walls behind, finds an echo in the sash of the putti looking down on the scene. All the figures enter into the drama and have a look of astonishment, on their faces, while Christ himself looks into the eyes of the young man with an expression of compassion and a sense of recognition that this prefigures his own destiny. But it also seems Le Sueur goes beyond the gospel passage, for It is as if the young man, unfurling his own funeral pall, represents the one who, in the new life of baptism, experiences and encounters, the one he or she will follow, the source of Life.