Dives and Lazarus | Art for Proper 21

“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Luke 16:31

Dives and Lazarus
BASSANO, Leandro
(b. 1557, Venezia, d. 1622, Venezia)
Dives and Lazarus
c. 1595
Oil on canvas, 100 x 123 cm
Private collectionClick image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Dives and Lazarus, oil on canvas, c.1595, Leandro Bassano, 1557-1622

Dives (Dye-veez) – Latin for “rich” or “rich man” – did not deny himself anything that would bring pleasure. Leandro Bassano depicts him at dinner in fine clothes, surrounded by the people who serve him. He is having a sumptuous meal as he did everyday, and while he is dining, musicians entertain him and a prostitute sits at his side. There is not room on the table for all of the food that is served. In front of Dives are full plates of food piled on top of full plates, and more food is on its way.

In Christ’s parable (Luke 16:19-31), Lazarus is a starving man who is covered with sores. He went to the rich man’s house to lie down by the gate with the hope that something to eat would be given to him. In his painting, Bassano, using artistic license, places Lazarus inside the house and directly at the dinner scene with Dives. Lazarus, on the floor beside the rich man, is looking up and reaching out with an open hand but is being ignored; the table is overflowing with food but not even a morsel is tossed to him. Two playful spaniels have arrived at Lazarus’ feet and are licking his sores while at the same time a servant is threatening to beat him with a stick. Dives had no pity on those in need and lived his life in a heartless and self-indulgent manner. There was no empathy for those who were less fortunate.

Upon death, Lazarus was taken to heaven and the uncaring Dives was sent to hell. When Dives looked across a deep chasm that divided them he saw Lazarus in heaven in Abraham’s bosom. He called to Abraham and pleaded that Lazarus be sent with water on a finger to place on his tongue but his plea was denied. Abraham said, “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here and you are in anguish in this flame.” (Luke 16:25)

The artist Leandro Bassano was the youngest son of a family of artists. His father, Jacopo da Ponte, studied in nearby Venice and then returned to the city of Bassano and, like many other artists, became known by the name of the city where he lived and worked. His four sons worked closely with him and it is believed some of the work attributed to the father, Jacopo, were the work of his sons. Leandro’s work is closest in style to his father’s paintings.


The story of “Dives and Lazarus” became an old English folk song and the Christmas carol, “Oh Sing a Song of Bethlehem” is sung to its melody. Anglican and Episcopal hymns also have been set to this melody and Ralph Vaughn Williams’ composition for harp and string orchestra – “Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus” – is based on this folk song as well.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

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