Lazarus and the Sickness Unto Death: An Allegory of Despair

In: Religion and the Arts
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  • 1 1Trinity College, University of Oxford


This article explores the religious symbolism of death and resurrection in works by Dostoevsky, Holbein, Kazantzakis, and Kierkegaard, examining the imaginative correlation between the death of God and the sickness of the soul. Exploring the symbolic analogy between the death of the self and the death of God evoked by these works, I offer an existential reading of the death and raising of Lazarus as an allegory of despair over the possibility of salvation. I illustrate this existential dis-ease via a symbolic reading of two artistic depictions of death and resurrection. Beginning with reference to Nikos Kazantzakis’s account of the death of Lazarus in The Last Temptation, and proceeding to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous description in The Idiot of Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521), I endeavor to articulate a constructive existential and psychological analogy between the death of the self and despair over the death of God (interpreted as an expression of the loss of hope in salvation). Finally, by reading such despair with imaginative-symbolic reference to Lazarus, I return to Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death in search of hope in the “impossible possibility of salvation.”

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