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Sensing Salvation

Comparative Commentary
Commentary by
Holly Flora

The senses are key to acts of healing as described in the Bible, and in Acts 3, sight and touch in particular are highlighted. The text states that Peter and John first looked at the lame man, and demanded that he look back at them, as a prelude to his healing (v.4). Medieval and Renaissance Christians considered sight the most powerful and primary of the senses, fundamental to the pursuit of knowledge and a prerequisite to belief (e.g. Augustine On Free Will 2.14). Vision was linked to faith in biblical exegesis; therefore, exegetes were naturally drawn to the fact that the cripple is asked to ‘see’ before he is touched by Peter, and only then can he walk. All three paintings of this subject thus underscore the power of the senses.

Via his visual focus on the pairing of John and Peter, Cimabue reinforces the idea that sight and touch are emblematic sensory aspects of the vita mixta practised by the Franciscans, the patrons of this work. Their way of life is a blending of the vita activa (the active life of preaching and service to the poor) with the vita contemplativa (the contemplative life of prayer). John, traditionally read as the visionary Apostle who saw and recorded his vision of the Apocalypse, is frequently cited in Christian exegesis as a model of the vita contemplativa (e.g. Augustine Harmony of the Gospels 1.5; taken up by Aquinas in his prologue to Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John). Sight—including visionary capabilities that take the idea of sight beyond the physical—is therefore John’s purview, and accordingly, Cimabue presents the figure of John to the left of the composition, standing still with his gaze fixed firmly on the eyes of the lame man. Peter, as the Christ-appointed founder of the early Church, was instead emblem of the vita activa, associated with the work of one’s hands, via touch. Cimabue’s mural thus shows Peter, in contrast to John, in motion, striding forward in the act of taking the man by the hand, lifting him up as he is healed.

In Masaccio’s version of the story, our attention is drawn to the mesmerizing gazes of Peter and John by giving them exceptionally wide, dark eyes. Peter stretches his hand toward the lame man and the man returns this gesture, but their hands do not yet touch. We are left to imagine what will happen in the next moment; the viewer therefore becomes a firsthand witness to the precise moment of the miracle. Such a dramatic yet personal presentation is in perfect harmony with the contemporary Florentine setting in which Masaccio sets this scene: an event of the past becomes an event of the present.

The sense of touch is also central to Nicolas Poussin’s rendition of Acts 3. Here, Peter is at the centre of the composition, stretching his open hand toward the lame man, who reaches up with his hand in response, palm down and first finger outstretched. Their gestures intentionally recall the Creation of Adam scene in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome. Beyond the artist’s homage to that legendary Renaissance image, this portrayal links Peter’s healing gift to the life-giving power of God. Invoking the senses of sight and touch, John draws our attention to the divine source of the miracle, grasping the lame man’s arm while pointing to heaven.

That all this takes place ‘in the name’ of Jesus Christ (Acts 3:6) suggests that the risen and ascended one is nevertheless still intensely present. But he cannot now be seen except in the forms of the Apostles who speak the words and do the deeds he did. Hence their summons to the lame man to ‘look at us’ (v.4).

And then, in these painted works, a further transposition occurs. The Apostles (and the Jesus they made present at the Beautiful Gate) are made present all over again—this time in paint. This time the summons to the lame man in verse 5 becomes a summons to us, to ‘fix our attention upon them’.

 

References

Augustine. Harmony of the Gospels. 1888. St. Augustine: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: First Series, Vol. 6, trans. by Philip Schaff (New York: The Christian Literature Company)

———. On Free Choice of the Will. 1993. Trans. by Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing), p.57

Thomas Aquinas. 2010. Commentary on the Gospel of John: Chapters 1–5, trans. by by Fabian Larcher and James Weisheipl (Washington: Catholic University of America Press)