Dives and Lazarus (Artful Devotion)

Lazarus and the Rich Man (11th cent.)
“Lazarus and Dives,” fol. 78r from the Codex Aureus of Echternach, ca. 1035–40. German National Museum, Nuremberg, Germany.

There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” And he said, “Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

—Luke 16:19–31


SONG: “Dives and Lazarus” | Traditional English ballad | Performed by Cooper, Nelson & Early, on Love & War (2004)


The illuminated manuscript page above tells visually, in three sequential strips, the parable of the rich man (“Dives”) and Lazarus. (The personal name Dives is not given in the scripture text but is traditionally used as shorthand for the rich man, as dives is Latin for “rich.”) The top register shows Lazarus, a sick homeless man, dying at Dives’s door; the middle, Lazarus’s soul being carried off to paradise by two angels and seated in Abraham’s bosom; and the bottom, Dives’s soul being carried off to hell by two devils and tortured.

This is one of four full-page miniatures that preface the Gospel of Luke in the Codex Aureus (“Golden Book”) of Echternach, a Vulgate edition of the four Gospels produced at the Benedictine Abbey of Echternach in Luxembourg in the eleventh century shortly after the Ottonian dynasty came to an end. It is a preeminent example of the Ottonian style.

This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 21, cycle C, click here.

5 thoughts on “Dives and Lazarus (Artful Devotion)

  1. I was drawn to this image as well when I was searching for a good visual for this story when I preach the lectionary on Sunday. However, I find it troubling that the angels– or demons– depicted in Hades are dark skinned, while the angels in heaven are white. I know this painting is from a long time ago. But to use it today without naming the association of blackness with evil and whiteness with goodness brings up troubling racial overtones. So, I am still on the lookout for a great image to use. I like your blog!


    1. I hear you. That detail did give me pause, too, when I considered posting this image, and once I settled on it, I debated whether or not to call it out. The Bible uses light and dark to symbolize good and evil, and historically that became conflated with white and black, which, because those designate racial categories, can be problematic. I decided, though, that this medieval Gospel-book illumination is worth contemplating, and I really like the “comic strip” format that lays out the whole story sequentially, which works well alongside the long ballad. There are several good artworks I’m aware of, including modern and contemporary ones (e.g., Sadao Watanabe, Mark Cazalet, James B. Janknegt), that depict Lazarus sitting outside Dives’s door. As for giving the whole story, this sixteenth-century painting from the Netherlands is quite good: http://adlib.catharijneconvent.nl/ais54/Details/collect/39635; the devils have dark scales and fur, but, because they’re cowering in the shadows, the “blackness” aspect is less overt.


  2. Looking beyond the color of the skin, the artist is not illustrating white vs. black, but rather purified vs. cindered.
    That which appears white is actually goldened, refined and being tempered in heaven. There appears to be hope for some who are in hell though, as they are seen clasping hands in prayer and one soul, actually being lifted up, away from the flames, ascending upwards to heaven. The hair on the cindered souls reveals ash and the nailbeds are exposed, common to exaggerated death. Tongues are becoming inflamed and they are experiencing a death of the soul, far greater than a death of the body.
    If there were another manner to which an artist could color the imaginative scene in that period of time, what perhaps would have been a better substitute? One of the cindered subjects, looking closer actually appear green. When you look at cinders in the fire, turning to smoldering embers, shades of green and fume are actually seen.
    What we are witnessing in this art is the actual burning of the soul of those who cared not for the people burning from disease and sores when living on earth, when they had the power to do so.


  3. The subject matter of your blog is one that I have always considered so interesting, thank you so much. One of the most beautiful pieces of music composed in England is Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The original melody comes from Star of the County Down, an old folk song from Northern Ireland.



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