ROME (Reuters) - Caravaggio's "Resurrection of Lazarus," one of the most hauntingly beautiful paintings by the master of chiaroscuro style who lived at the cusp of the 16th and 17th centuries, has been restored for the first time in 60 years.
The painting, also known as The Raising of Lazarus, was done by Caravaggio in Sicily, where he fled from Malta in 1608. It was housed for centuries in the church of the Crociferi fathers in Messina before it was moved to that city's museum.
Believed to have been executed in 1609 - one year before the artist's death at the age of 38 - the painting depicts the story in the Gospel of St John in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
The restoration took seven months and the painting, measuring 3.80 by 2.75 meters (around nine by 12 feet), will be on display in Rome's Palazzo Braschi, overlooking Piazza Navona, until July 15. It will then return to Sicily.
According to legend, Caravaggio, whose real name was Michelangelo Merisi, had a freshly buried body exhumed in order to make the painting more realistic.
The painting shows the instant that Christ points to the dead Lazarus, who is being held in the arms of those who exhumed him, to bring his friend back to life.
While Lazarus' left arm is limp as if still dead, his right arm is raised as if to receive the life-giving energy from Jesus' commanding index finger.
Lazarus' sisters Mary and Martha, one in a transparent veil, are still weeping over him, not realizing he was returning to life.
The background of the painting is mostly dark, which art historians say was probably because Caravaggio was in a hurry to complete the commission he had received from a wealthy merchant to paint it.
"During this period of his life, Caravaggio was forced to finish his paintings very quickly and therefore he refined his technique in order to achieve this objective," said restorer Anna Maria Marcone.
"He used local materials and used the dark background in order to quickly realize the figures," she told a news conference.
The painting was done on six pieces of canvas - five vertical and one horizontal -- that were sewn together to reach the desired size.
Marcone said the hardest part of the restoration was repairing some of the damage done by what was believed to have been the first restoration on the painting, in 1670, about 60 years after it was painted.
According to legend, the first restorer, Andrea Suppa, removed some of the paint while cleaning and became the butt of criticism by the people of Messina. They were so harsh in their condemnation that Suppa is said to have died of a broken heart.
The painting, however, is a survivor - it came unscathed through the great Messina earthquake of 1908, which killed up to 200,000 people and destroyed thousands of buildings in Sicily and Calabria.
Reporting By Philip Pullella