|James Tissot, Jesus Healing the Woman|
French, c. 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
“Jesus was teaching in
a synagogue on the Sabbath.
And a woman was there who for eighteen years
had been crippled by a spirit;
she was bent over, completely incapable of standing erect.
When Jesus saw her, he called to her and said,
“Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.”
He laid his hands on her,
and she at once stood up straight and glorified God.
But the leader of the synagogue,
indignant that Jesus had cured on the Sabbath,
said to the crowd in reply,
“There are six days when work should be done.
Come on those days to be cured, not on the Sabbath day.”
The Lord said to him in reply, “Hypocrites!
Does not each one of you on the Sabbath
untie his ox or his ass from the manger
and lead it out for watering?
This daughter of Abraham,
whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now,
ought she not to have been set free on the Sabbath day
from this bondage?”
When he said this, all his adversaries were humiliated;
and the whole crowd rejoiced at all the splendid deeds done by him.”
Although I usually focus on the iconography related to those passages of Scripture that are read as part of the Sunday liturgies, this quotation, which is read during the Mass for Monday, October 26 caught my eye. It has a very personal connection.
For almost six months during 2018 I was the woman “bent over, completely incapable of standing erect”. After a dozen years of growing discomfort in walking, caused by the narrowing of the canal through which the spinal cord runs, I arose on the morning of June 30, 2018 unable to stand up. In order to move around at all, I had to bend at a 900 angle and even that was terribly painful. Attempting to stand straight was impossible. Bed rest didn’t help, nor did the medication suggested by the emergency room doctors. My physiotherapist refused to touch me for fear of causing more damage.
Because of the terrible timing (the week of the July 4 holiday) it took nearly two weeks before I could see an appropriate doctor and begin the process of determining what had gone so wrong. After several MRIs and ordinary x-rays it was obvious that he cause was a herniated disk in my lower back. The disk had collapsed and the vertebra above had slipped over the one below. Surgery was suggested to deal with that as well as to free the terribly pinched nerve just below the collapse. It took me months more to find a surgeon I trusted and to get clearance for the surgery. Finally, on December 12, 2018 I had the operation to remove the collapsed disk, replace it with an intervertebral disk, place bone grafts and a titanium rod in support, and screw the whole thing together, as well as to cut out a section of bone where the nerve was being squeezed.
Since then I have been working on recovery. Having one’s back taken apart and screwed back together is a serious business. The road has been long, and unfortunately interrupted by the restrictions on movement that have accompanied the coronavirus pandemic, but ever since the first week of recovery I have been able to stand straight once again.
|Fig Tree Parable and Healing of the Bent Woman|
From the Gospels of Otto III
German (Reichenau), c. 1000
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4453, fol. 175v
All of this has made me alert to this story of Jesus’ healing of the “bent woman”. I strongly identify with her and have often reflected on how terrible her life must have been for the eighteen long years she was unable to stand. How difficult it must have been to live with that condition but without very much available to help her to deal with it. A story told me by my mother about one of her aunts (my great-aunt) also resonates. My great-aunt suffered a vertebral slippage in her 40s and remained like that, bent double, for the rest of her life. This happened in the 1920s in rural Ireland. There was little that anyone could do for her or for the pain she must have endured. And so it has been for many thousands of years. I am truly fortunate that I live at a time in which there is something that can be done, even though the surgery brings its own set of woes. But I had the opportunity to use a rolling walker to help support my walking, I had the use of ice bags and heating pads, modern pain killers and the use of a TENS unit to help with the pain. In first century Palestine, and in every other location until quite recently, such things were unimaginable.
|Claes Brouwer, Jeus Heals the Woman Bent Over and the Parable of the Fig Tree|
From a History Bible
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1420
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 78 D 38 II, fol. 170r
At the time I was afflicted, I posted some comments regarding my problem on this blog. In searching for some images to use (after all, this is a blog about art) I discovered that these seemed to be virtually non-existent. I used the two or three I found and resolved to do some more digging later. Noting that the reading for October 26th is the passage that refers to this healing, the time seemed ripe. I began the search.
|Philips Galle After Anthonie Blocklandt, Christ Heals a Crippled Woman|
From the Series Six Scenes with Christ and Women from the Gospels
Flemish, c. 1577-1579
The less than handful of images I found in 2018-2019 came from two totally different eras, two from the high middle ages and one from the late nineteenth century. In my search this year I uncovered a few more, the majority of them coming from the period stretching from the late sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries. Perhaps this two-hundred-year period, with its nearly constant wars within Europe, saw more of this kind of injury than had been true previously, or perhaps artists were somewhat more interested in this predicament. I cannot really account for the scarcity of images in earlier and later periods in any other way.
|Abel Grimmer, September landscape with the Parable of the Olive Tree, Collapse of the Tower of Siloam and the Miracle of the Woman Bent Over|
Flemish, c. 1600
Although my search did turn up these additional images they remain few. I think this rather sad. This is a real, debilitating state in which to find oneself. Since human beings haven’t changed all that much physically since the appearance of the first humans, whether you are talking about the biblical Adam and Eve or the genetic Adam and Eve, this ailment has been with us in the past as it is today. Perhaps in the past it was somewhat less frequent, owing to the shorter life expectancies of earlier centuries, but there have always been people who lived to extraordinary ages. That this woman should be mentioned in the Gospels makes that clear enough. Therefore, it is sad that artists depicted this miracle only infrequently. It is the same with another miracle of Jesus, where he heals the withered hand of a man, a miracle which is included in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. I found few visual references for that miracle either.
|David Vinckboons I, Healing of the Bent Woman|
From a Series on the Life of Christ
Dutch, c. 1610-1615
Perhaps they are less frequently depicted because they are part of a controversy between Jesus and those who believed themselves to be upholders of the Law. Both cures were done on the Sabbath and are instances of a string of actions by Jesus, taken on the Sabbath, that offended the “leaders”. Yet, other actions done of the Sabbath, such as the healing of the paralyzed man at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-17), are visually well represented.
|Jan van van Orley, Christ Healing on the Sabbath|
From a Series of Scenes from the New Testament
Flemish, c. 1685-1700
The fact that the recipient of the miracle is a woman doesn’t seem to be one of the reasons for the lack in the visual record. I found many, many instances of miracles done for women, from the very widely represented healing of the woman who had been bleeding for many years, to the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter, to the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. Miracles for women abound in both the biblical texts and the visual legacy.
|Jan Luyken, Jesus Heals the Bent Woman in the Synagogue|
Perhaps the miracle in question wasn’t highly thought of by painters, as it afforded them less space for demonstrations of their skill at depiction. Perhaps they found the subject of an old, bent woman uncongenial.
|Jan Pieterszoon Saenredam After Hendrick Goltzius, |
A Crippled Old Woman Healed by Christ
Dutch, c. 1594
Philadelphia, Museum of Art
However, I am certain that to the recipient of the miracle, it was the most wonderful moment of her life. I suspect that, unlike those of us who have to trust our healing to the hands of surgeons, her recovery was neither slow nor tedious nor incomplete, but miraculously complete, leaving her pain free and capable of much greater movement.
|Jan Luyken, Jesus Lays His Hand on the Crooked Woman|
|Thomas Schaidhauf, Christ Heals the Crooked Woman|
German, c. 1780-1800
Fürstenfeldbruck, Former Monastery Church of the Assumption
In any event I find myself sharing in the suffering and the release from it which the few available pictures suggest. And I will keep on looking for more. The quest has not ended.
© M. Duffy, 2020