Sunday, February 19, 2012

Illustrating Miracles: The Hole in the Roof

Master of the Registrum Gregorii, Jesus Heals the Paralytic
From the Codex Egberti
German (Reichenau), 977-993.
Trier, Stadtbibliothek
MS StB Hs 24, Unknown folio

When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days,
it became known that he was at home.
Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them,
not even around the door,
and he preached the word to them.
They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.
Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd,
they opened up the roof above him.
After they had broken through,
they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic,
"Child, your sins are forgiven."
Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves,
"Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming.
Who but God alone can forgive sins?"
Jesus immediately knew in his mind
what they were thinking to themselves,
so he said, "Why are you thinking such things in your hearts?
Which is easier, to say to the paralytic,
'Your sins are forgiven,'
or to say, 'Rise, pick up your mat and walk?'
But that you may know
that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth"
-he said to the paralytic,
"I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home."
He rose, picked up his mat at once,
and went away in the sight of everyone.
They were all astounded
and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this."
(Mark 2:1-12) Gospel for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B*

When I was a small child, somewhere around age 4 or 5, my then parish church, located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, sponsored a campaign to encourage parishioners to read the Bible. As part of that campaign, several Douay-Rheims translations of the Bible,1 in various price ranges, were made available. My parents opted for the deluxe offering, a beautiful volume, bound in leather, with gilt-edged pages and red lettering for the statements of Jesus. 2  It also came with several sections that included maps and descriptions of biblical history, explanations of the Rosary and the Mass, plus a glossary and footnotes and a section for recording important family events. For me, however, the best feature of all was the illustrations. It was elegantly illustrated with both series of biblical illustrations by James Tissot. Unbeknownst to me at the time, both series have a New York connection. The Old Testament illustrations are now in the Jewish Museum, a few blocks from my current residence; while the New Testament scenes are in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, just across the East River.

At the time this volume entered our house I was too small to be able to read. So, like our illiterate ancestors in ages past, I looked at the pictures. They were fascinating. I knew some of the stories because I had listened at Mass to the Gospel readings (at that time the only portion of the Mass that was in English). As I learned to read, I read the captions and eventually proceeded to being able to connect the captions to the biblical passages from which they derived. Although I now own a variety of Bibles in several translations and editions, I still treasure this book and its pictures.

Among the illustrations that most fascinated me as a child was the scene described in the text of the Gospel for this Sunday. In this Gospel citizens of Capernaum bring their paralyzed family member or friend to Jesus, confident that He will heal their friend, IF they can reach Him. Blocked by the crowds surrounding Jesus, they climb onto the roof of the house where He is staying, tear a hole in it and lower their friend down into His presence. Tissot’s depiction, based on careful research gained from extended trips to the Middle East, seems very real and immediate. The strong composition, in which the downward motion of the descending paralytic, his arms spread wide, is met by the upward moving gestures of those who have risen to support him, leads down in a descending curve to the true focus of the picture, the seated Jesus, raising His arms in welcome and blessing. The picture is a dynamic, realistic product of a century of realism.

James Tissot, Healing of the Paralytic
French, c. 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

Earlier depictions were less so. Lacking both the ability and the interest to create a realistic vision, early depictions seem to have an almost fairytale quality. For example, a mosaic of the subject, composed around the year 500 for the Arian church of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna shows Jesus, depicted in larger-than-life-size (to underline His divine status), standing with a slightly smaller disciple, while the friends of the paralytic lower him from the roof of a building. The paralytic and his friends are represented as extremely small figures, indicating their simple human status.  Moreover, the imprecise perspective in which the building is depicted makes it difficult to tell whether the paralyzed man is being lowered to the inside of the building or to the outside.

Jesus Healing the Paralytic
Byzantine, c. 500
Ravenna, Sant' Apollinare Nuovo

A very similar scene is found in a 12th-century pictorial Bible from the Abbey of St. Bertin in France. Again we see a cut-away view of the house, in which a giant-sized Jesus sits, addressing a crowd of smaller figure. Through the hole in the roof, which resembles a chimney, two men lower the paralytic. But the two men are so nearly obscured by what appear to be towers that the overall first impression makes it seem as if the paralytic is descending from above without assistance.

Christ Healing the Paralytic
From a Pictorial Bible
France (St. Omer), c. 1190-1200
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 5, fol. 14r (detail)

In the mosaics decorating the cathedral of Monreale in Sicily, executed around 1200, the hole in the roof has completely disappeared and the friends appear to lower the invalid, on his bed, from the edge of the roof, almost as if the building had a Roman-style atrium.  Also of note is the fact that Jesus no longer appears to be as big as the house.  He has assumed more human dimensions.

Christ Healing the Paralytic
Sicilian, c. 1200
Monreale, Cathedral

This demonstrates that, although we often think of Byzantine influence as being anti-naturalistic, more abstract and symbolic, here the later Byzantine style brings a greater naturalism than we see in the nearly contemporary work from the Abbey of St. Bertin.

A later, 15th century work, the Meditationes vitae Christi, illustrated by the Master of the Harvard Hannibal, and made for King Henry V of England around 1420, places the hole in the roof, but sets the descent, somewhat illogically, outside the house. This represents a period in which the artist appears to be struggling with the correct use of perspective.

Mast of the Harvard Hannibal, Christ Healing the Paralytic
From Meditationes vitae Christ by Pseudo-Bonaventure
French (Paris), c. 1420
London, British Library
MS Royal 20 B IV, fol.v59v

By the turn of the 17th century perspective difficulties had been overcome and the indoor location of the event could be presented properly. This can be illustrated by the work of two Flemish artists, Marten de Vos and Anton Wierix, done for Catholic editions of the Bible around 1600.3   Typical of the style prevalent at the time, the compositions are crowded and somewhat difficult to read, particularly the de Vos. But it is clearly obvious that the invalid has been lowered from the opening in the roof.

Anton Wierix, Christ Healing the Paralytic
From Evangelicae historiae imagines byJerome Nadal
Flemish, c. 1593-1595
London, Trustees of the British Museum

Marten de Vos, Christ Healing the Paralytic
Flemish, c. 1600
Bolton (England), Bolton Museum

It remained for the late 19th-century painter, Tissot, to present us with a dramatic, readable and realistic image.

© M. Duffy, 2012
*  Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

1.  See  For a discussion of how the Douay-Rheims translation was influential in the Authorized Version (known as the King James Bible) see Nicolson, Adam.  God's Secretaries:  The Making of the King James Bible, New York, HarperCollins, 2003.

2.  The Holy Bible, The Catholic Press, Inc., 1950.


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