If Apsley House is affectionately known as No. 1, London, then it stands to reason that there must also be a No. 1 among the thousands of pictures in The National Gallery. Yet at the time of the Gallery’s foundation, there were a number of paintings that made up the collection, and not just one. In fact, it comprised 38 paintings that had formerly belonged to a Russian-born merchant and philanthropist called John Julius Angerstein (1735–1823), which were purchased by the government in 1824 to form the basis from which the collection would grow.
Angerstein’s collection included a number of extremely distinguished paintings, including Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Julius II, the six canvases of Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode series, and no fewer than five landscapes by Claude Lorrain, each one more beautiful than the other, but there can never have been any doubt which of his treasures would have the singular honour of being 'NG1'.
The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo (1485–1547) measures an imposing 381 x 289.6 cm, which means that there is only one picture in the collection that is bigger, Guido Reni's The Adoration of the Shepherds.
In this work, Sebastiano (who came from Venice but by this date was one of the leading masters active in Rome) knew that he was going to have to go head to head in competition with Raphael (1483–1520), and that inspired him to pull out all the stops. The cunning plan to set them against one another had been hatched by one of the most powerful figures at the papal court: Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, who later became Pope Clement VII, and who commissioned them both to paint altarpieces for Narbonne Cathedral in France. In the event, Raphael’s Transfiguration (now in the Vatican Gallery), which turned out to be his final work, never left Rome, but the original scheme must have been for both works to be closely scrutinised and judged before they vanished forever.
Even at the time, and not just with the wisdom of hindsight, Raphael was a considerably bigger cheese than Sebastiano, but the Venetian had a not so secret weapon in his armoury. He was a close ally of Michelangelo, who cordially loathed the younger and more glamorous Raphael, and supplied Sebastiano with drawings for the central figure group, some of which survive. At the same time, the final work is very much Sebastiano’s own creation, not least thanks to the radiant colours of the draperies and the evocative subtlety of the distant landscape.
At the time of writing, The Raising of Lazarus is one of the high points of The National Gallery’s 2017 exhibition 'Michelangelo & Sebastiano', and is keeping company with a whole host of other masterpieces by both artists. Inhabiting a spectacular new frame in period style, it has quite simply never looked better, so even its old friends should pay it another visit.
David Ekserdjian, Professor of History of Art and Film at the University of Leicester