Delve Deeper - The Chichester Reliefs

In the South Nave Aisle of the Cathedral you will see two panel sculptures illustrating the story of Lazarus. Nairn and Pevsner (1965) hold the view that the panels are “the most memorable things” in the entire Cathedral.

In the first sculpture, Lazarus has been dead for four days. His sisters Mary and Martha have sent for Jesus in the belief that their brother can be saved. They are shown kneeling and grieving at the town gate of Bethany. In the second sculpture, Jesus raises Lazarus still bound in grave clothes. Mary and Martha look on with astonished expressions. Also depicted are some of the disciples and the two grumpy gravediggers.

The period of four days is of great significance. Jewish belief held that the soul hovered over the body for three days and then departed. Since Jesus waited for four days before bringing Lazarus back to life, the act was seen as a miracle, perhaps next to his resurrection, the greatest.

By convention, the most important person, Jesus, is the tallest. The emotional narrative is portrayed by well-cut sharply defined faces, showing intense emotion, grief and awe whilst the overwhelming feeling expressed in the drama is the sense of pathos. Originally the sculptures would have been painted with jewels in the eye sockets. The discolouration of the stone is probably from the effects of the fire of 1187.

Popular opinion conflated the Lazarus Christ raised from the dead (John 11) with the Lazarus of the parables (Luke 16:19-25) who waited for scraps at the gate of the rich man. This association led to St Lazarus becoming the patron saint of lepers. 

Dating the Reliefs

In the Great Exhibition of 1851, a cast of one of the reliefs was on show. This gave rise to much debate as to the date of the Reliefs. In Arthur Mee’s guide book of 1937 they are called “The Saxon Panels from Selsey’s Lost Cathedral”. In the 1950s, Professor George Zarnecki of the Courtauld Institute made a detailed analysis, and concluded they were made in the second quarter of the 12th century. Most scholars now agree with Professor Zarnecki that the Reliefs are Anglo-Saxon in origin and when first found there were 13 fragments of architecture with identifiable wings, drapery and creatures on the blocks of stone.

Recent discoveries of Saxon carvings show interesting similarities to the Chichester panels. Pevsner, page 157, says “For a long time they were thought to date from about 1000 and it is hardly surprising, because the architecture looks Carolingian, the impassioned awkwardness of the figure and the empathy between them seems nowhere near the sculptural order of most Romanesque sculpture.”

Discovery of the Reliefs

The Chichester Reliefs were found in 1829, hidden behind boards on the south east pier of the Norman crossing above the choir stalls. According to Zarnecki, they were in their original location. Zarnecki postulates that these were part of a chancel screen which would have consisted of eight panels set in four pairs, two on each pier, two either side of the gateway in the centre of the screen.


Essential restoration work to the Reliefs was conducted in September 2018 by a highly skilled team of restorers.

To read more on this careful conservation work, please visit our 'News' pages.