Ca. 1570. Oil on canvas, 150 x 202 cm.
The parable of Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31) has been interpreted in many ways: an apology of charitable works; a comparison between salvation and perdition, and between gentiles (Lazarus) and Jews (Epulon, the rich man); and the dogs who lick Lazarus's sores have even been held to be an allusion to the Dominican preachers and their miraculous cures. Aikema has provided examples of sermons and contemporary texts in which the parable of Lazarus was invoked to encourage the establishment of hospices for the poor or to juxtapose the apparent wealth of the powerful with the true spiritual wealth of God's servants. In fact, Bassano only depicted the first three verses of the parable, which are not overly rich in descriptive elements and merely tell how the rich man feasted sumptuously every day, clothed in purple and fine linen, while poor Lazarus lay at his gate in a state of neglect, with dogs licking his sores.
Jacopo turned to this theme in two different stages of his career. His first rendering, dated to the mid-1550s (The Cleveland Museum of Art, inv. 39.68), depicts only the elements and characters necessary to make the scene recognisable: Lazarus and the dogs on one side, and the rich man, a musician and a whore on the other. The only figure that does not appear in the biblical text, though indeed fascinating, is the child who separates the two groups. The second version, painted twenty years later, reflects a very different conception of the theme. As in the other kitchen scenes, the principal theme has ceded visual prominence to a motley group of people and situations for which there is little justification in the gospel account. This second rendition was highly successful, to judge by the number of extant and/or documented versions. Ridolfi mentioned three in Venice: the one owned by Iacopo Pighetti and the Contarinis' two, to which Boschini added a fourth in the Bonfadini collection. There is a graphic testimony of two more versions, one engraved around 1593 by Giovanni Sadeler, and Jackson's 18th century engraving of the version owned by Consul Smith in Venice. Ballarin points out the lack of an extant original signed by Jacopo, but believes that a painting in an English private collection (117.5 x 164.5 cm) sold by Christie's in London on 17 December 1999 is entirely autograph. There is a bottega replica in Prague (National Gallery inv. No. 02952), which Arslan attributed to Jacopo and Francesco, and another attributed to Leandro in Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Museum, inv. 1547).
Compared to the original Ballarin mentions, which is very similar to the version engraved by Sadeler, the Prado painting is of poorer quality and displays the characteristics of a typical bottega product, its figures and motifs having been assembled correctly but in a markedly automatic manner. Certain changes in the composition are also noticeable. In the original and engraved versions, the group composed of a young woman with a mortar, a woman with a turban sitting at a table and a child kneeling in front of her occupies the centre of the composition; In the Prado painting, the child has been replaced by a cat, the woman with the turban has disappeared (there is a young woman in her place), and a page in the foreground with his back to the viewer carrying a tray to the rich man's table, and a servant skinning a rabbit have been added. There is also a small iconographic difference: the engraved version includes the rich man engulfed in flames in the distance begging Abraham and Lazarus for mercy. This motif appears neither in the original Ballarin attributes to Jacopo nor in the Prado version (Text drawn from Falomir, M.: Los Bassano en la España del Siglo de Oro, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2001, pp. 218-219).