On November 17th, the life of St Lazarus of Constantinople is commemorated. Born c. 810 in Armenia, he is also known as Lazarus Zographos (Ζωγράφος), or the Painter. St Lazarus, therefore, is the earliest Saint to be glorified specifically as an Iconographer.
Little is known about St Lazarus’ early life, except that as a youth he settled in Constantinople and entered monasticism. Grounded in the ascetic life of a monk, he learned the art of painting icons at exactly the wrong time: whilst Theophilus the Iconoclast was on the imperial throne (829-842). Brought before the emperor, and with the threat of the death penalty hanging over him, St Lazarus staunchly refused to destroy any of the holy images he had painted. He was imprisoned.
After his release from prison, St Lazarus continued to paint icons and so was again arrested and this time tortured by having red-hot horseshoes applied to his hands, burning the flesh to the bone. Lazarus was rescued from any further tortures by Theodora, the emperor’s wife and secret venerator of icons (iconodule), and secluded in the St John the Baptist monastery by the banks of the Bosphorus.
Upon the Restoration of Icons in 843A.D., St Lazarus was once again free to venerate icons, and even continued to paint them despite his previous injuries: in gratitude to Empress Theodora he painted an icon with of St. John the Baptist and then a huge figure of Jesus Christ on one of the gates of the Imperial Palace.
In 856, Lazarus was sent by Michael III (Theophilus and Theodora’s son) as an emissary to visit Pope Benedict III to discuss the possibility of reconciliation between Rome and Constantinople – who at this point had very strained relations. He made a second mission to Rome in 867 but died during the journey and was buried in the monastery of Evanderes, near Constantinople.
Fr Steven Bigham, in his book “Heroes of the Icon”, has this to say on St Lazarus the Iconographer:
In the “Life of St Lazarus”, we read about the following virtues: love for Christ, asceticism, prayer, and rejection of the vanities of the world. These are qualities expected of all the faithful, but St Lazarus’ biography highlights other characteristics directly related to his life as an iconographer: He persevered “in asceticism and prayer so as to prepare himself to transcribe his inner contemplation onto the images he painted…” We have here the perfect expression of the role of an iconographer, and of the icon itself, in the process of man’s sanctification.
The ability to paint icons was a specific gift given by God to St Lazarus, and this is why he is given the title “the Iconographer”. Yet the way in which this grace was nurtured by St Lazarus – through prayer, fasting, and perseverance – is common to all Christians. Even the result of St Lazarus’ gift is something we can all do. What St Lazarus did in paint, we are called to do in one way or another: show forth the true image of God.