Monday, January 29, 2018

Illustrating Miracles – Jesus Heals the Possessed

Jesus Casting Out a Demon
From New Testament Illustrations
German (Upper Rhine), c. 1425-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 720, fol. 3r
“Then they came to Capernaum,
and on the sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught.
The people were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.
In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit;
he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us?
I know who you are—the Holy One of God!"
Jesus rebuked him and said,
"Quiet! Come out of him!"
The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.
All were amazed and asked one another,
"What is this?
A new teaching with authority.
He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him."
His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.”

Mark 1:21-28, Gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Mark’s Gospel contains two similar yet different accounts of the healing of a possessed man by Jesus.  The first one is the Gospel for this Sunday, the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time quoted above.  The second, longer and better known account, is the Gospel that will be read at the Masses for the following day, Monday, January 29, 2018:

Engraving After Gerard Groenning, Jesus Cures the Possessed Man of Gerasa
From Thesaurus Novi Testamenti elegantissimis iconibus expressus continens
historias atque miracula do[mi] ni nostri Iesu Christi
Flemish, 1585
London, British Museum
“Jesus and his disciples came to the other side of the sea,
to the territory of the Gerasenes.
When he got out of the boat,
at once a man from the tombs who had an unclean spirit met him.
The man had been dwelling among the tombs,
and no one could restrain him any longer, even with a chain.
In fact, he had frequently been bound with shackles and chains,
but the chains had been pulled apart by him and the shackles smashed,
and no one was strong enough to subdue him.
Night and day among the tombs and on the hillsides
he was always crying out and bruising himself with stones.
Catching sight of Jesus from a distance,
he ran up and prostrated himself before him,
crying out in a loud voice,
"What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?
I adjure you by God, do not torment me!"
(He had been saying to him, "Unclean spirit, come out of the man!")
He asked him, "What is your name?"
He replied, "Legion is my name. There are many of us."
And he pleaded earnestly with him
not to drive them away from that territory.

Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside.
And they pleaded with him,
"Send us into the swine. Let us enter them."
And he let them, and the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine.
The herd of about two thousand rushed down a steep bank into the sea,
where they were drowned.
The swineherds ran away and reported the incident in the town
and throughout the countryside.
And people came out to see what had happened.
As they approached Jesus,
they caught sight of the man who had been possessed by Legion,
sitting there clothed and in his right mind.
And they were seized with fear.
Those who witnessed the incident explained to them what had happened
to the possessed man and to the swine.
Then they began to beg him to leave their district.
As he was getting into the boat,
the man who had been possessed pleaded to remain with him.
But Jesus would not permit him but told him instead,
"Go home to your family and announce to them
all that the Lord in his pity has done for you."
Then the man went off and began to proclaim in the Decapolis
what Jesus had done for him; and all were amazed.”

Matthew 5:1-20

The curing of these possessed individuals is not one of the most frequently depicted miracles of Jesus in art.  Possibly this is because the representation of a possessed individual was distasteful to artists or their patrons, or possibly just because it is more difficult to depict the possessed than it is to depict someone who is a leper or blind or paralyzed.  There are both clinical and cultural signs that signal these other conditions.  Possession or madness is a bit more difficult.  Nevertheless, some artists did endeavor to depict these scenes, especially the second one, where the presence of the herd of swine offers an exterior clue to the subject being imaged.

The first image I have been able to locate comes from a cycle of pictures of the life of Christ from the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna.  This basilica was built at the beginning of the sixth century by the Ostrogothic King Theodoric, who had deposed the last of the Roman Emperors of the West.  Like many of the Gothic tribes which had invaded the western Empire, the Ostrogoths were Arian Christians.  That is, they believed Jesus to be, not the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, but to be a created being, separate from and inferior to God.1   For a while it looked as though this heresy might overwhelm the orthodox belief, held from the Apostles on, that Jesus is co-equal and consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the three-fold mystery of the Triune Godhead.    Orthodox believers in both the Greek and Latin speaking branches of what was still one, undivided Church, eventually prevailed in the controversy and Sant’Apollinare was reconsecrated and partially rebuilt in the second half of the sixth century by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Justinian. 

Jesus Heals the Possessed Man of Gerasa
Byzantine, c. 526
Ravenna, Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
The image from Sant’Apollinare shows the end of the passage from Matthew 5 in which the formerly possessed man kneels in thanksgiving before Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind” (Matthew 5:15), as the swine into which the legion of evil spirits formerly infesting him had fled, as they rush into the water to drown.  Standing behind Jesus is a disciple, who may represent the Evangelist Matthew, raising his hand in a gesture of astonishment as he looks directly at the viewer.
The next image I located comes from another imperial court, this time in northern Europe.  In the tenth century the Ottonian Emperors governed the remains of the empire constructed in western Europe by Charlemagne.  And, in the late tenth century, the Emperor Otto III presented a series of ivory plaques to the cathedral of Magdeburg, which represent some of the finest European ivory carving of the early middle ages.2  It shows the moment at which the demons who have afflicted the Gerasene man come out of him.  A spirit is issuing from his mouth as his friends attempt to restrain him.  Behind the man stand the swine, not yet infested by the evil spirits.  Behind Jesus we see Peter, holding the keys, and the other Apostles.

Christ Healing the Possessed Man of Gerasa
Ottonian, c. 968
Darmstadt, Hessisches Landesemuseum

These images laid the ground for a series of medieval images, in wall painting and manuscripts, for the scene of the casting out of demons.  Most, though not all, include the pigs and are, therefore, clear references to the passage in Matthew 5.  Those that do not may be seen as references to the episode in Matthew 7. 
The Healing of the Gerasene Demoniac
German, c. 980
Oberzell, Church of St. Georg
Jesus Casting Out a Demon
From the Hitda Codex
German (Cologne), First Quarter of the 11th Century
Darmstadt, Landesbibliothek
MS 1640, fol. 76
Jesus Curing the Gerasene Demoniac
From the Gospel Book of Otto III
German (Reichenau), c. 1000
Munich, Bayerische StaatsBibliothek
MS Clm 4453, fol. 43 (detail) 

Claes Brouwer and Others. Healing of the Possesed Man at Gerasa
From a Book of Hours
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1430
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 78 D 38 II, fol. 157v
Jesus Curing the Possessed Men of Gerasa
From the Ottheinrich-Bibel
German, c. 1430
Munich, Bayerische StaatsBibliothek
MS Cgm 8010, fol. 40
With the advent of the Renaissance the pigs tend to disappear and the focus becomes more closely focused on the struggling possessed man (usually restrained by friends) and Jesus. 

Unknown Master of Delft, Jesus Casting Out a Demon
Dutch, 1503
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Hans Franck, Jesus Curing a Demoniac
German, 1517
London, British Museum
Sebald Beham, Jesus Curing a Demoniac
German, 1530
London, British Museum

Tobias Stimmer, Jesus Casting Out a Demon
German Swiss, c. 1560-1564
London, British Museum
It isn’t until the end of the sixteenth century that the pigs return to enable us to clearly identify those images that illustrate Matthew 7.   However, neither passage seems to have dominated and artists were able to include whatever context and details they wished. In addition, the detail of the demon exiting from the mouth of the possessed becomes much less common.

During these years the setting was opened up and the dramatic confrontation was placed in a well-defined landscape peopled by many subsidiary figures. 

Anonymous, Jesus Casting Out a Demon
Italian, 17th Century
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Paul Bril, Healing of the Possessed Man of Gerasa
Flemish, 1601
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen,  Alte Pinakothek
Friedrich Christoph Steinhammer, Jesus Casting Out a Demon
German, 1612
London, British Museum
Paul Kreutzberger, Jesus Casting Out a Demon
From Illustrations for a Bible
German, c. 1620-1660
London, British Museum
Anonymous, Jesus Casting Out a Demon
Italian, c. 1650
London, British Museum
Francois Chauveau, Jesus Curing the Possessed Man of Capernaum
French, c. 1670-1676
London, British Museum
Late seventeenth-century artist Francois Chauveau apparently illustrated both passages from Saint Matthew's Gospel with these two pictures.
Francois Chauveau, Jesus Curing the Possessed Man of Gerasa
French, c. 1670-1676
London, British Museum
Aureliano Milani_Healing of the Possesed at Gerasa
Italian, c. 1700
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Johann Michael Rottmayr , Jesus Casting Out Demons
German, c. 1704-1706
Breslau, Church of Sankt Matthias
Finally, at the end of the nineteenth century, in his first great Biblical series of pictures, the French artist James Tissot, painted a highly realistic scene.  
James Tissot, The Two Possessed Men of Gerasa
French, c. 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
Based on his residence in what was then Palestine Tissot was able to create a believable vision of the event, where two naked, gaunt and wild-haired men are confronted in their madness by Jesus and his disciples.  In the background a swineherd tends the pigs that will shortly become infested and hurl themselves to their deaths in the sea below.

© M. Duffy, 2018

  1. This view of the nature of Jesus is held today by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
  2. For more information on this series of plaques and for Ottonian art in general see:  The Metropolitan Museum of New York at and the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History at

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.

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