The Gospel story of the Resurrection of Righteous Lazarus is one of the earliest depictions in Christian pictorial art. Most likely the iconographic tradition of the Resurrection of Lazarus formed earlier than the celebration of this Gospel event. This theme can be found in the earliest of Christian monuments that have been preserved to our days, including the wall paintings in the catacombs and bas-reliefs on sarcophaguses.
It is quite logical that the catacomb frescos and bas-reliefs are connected with the theme of the resurrection from the dead and the victory over death. The artists needed to express their faith in the deliverance from original sin, and the decay and death that goes along with it. The theme of the Resurrection of Lazarus points to the future general resurrection, and therefore it often appears in burial sites.
In the early monuments of Christian art the Resurrection of Righteous Lazarus is laconically presented in the form of two figures. The depictions of Christ were just beginning to form in that period; He is shown with a beard and long hair, and also as a beardless youth. In Christ’s hand is a light stick, the attribute of a miracle worker as a symbol that would have been understood by people of that time. With time the stick is transformed into a short royal staff, and then it disappears altogether. God does not need an instrument to work a miracle—His will is sufficient. Furthermore, the depictions gradually become more evangelically exact. In the text of the Gospel of John, the Savior’s words addressed to God the Father and His command to Lazarus are very precisely written: “Lazarus, come forth! (Jn. 11:41).
Artists from the eastern provinces of the Byzantine empire depicted the tomb as it would have looked—that is, a cave in a rocky hillside. Gradually the composition on tombs were filled in with details. Martha and Mary and the Jews, opening the tomb, and the man who removes the grave clothes from the resurrected Lazarus began to be depicted also.