Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man by Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin

Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man, 1655, Oil on canvas, 125.7 x 165.1 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Marquand Fund, 1924, 24.45.2, www.metmuseum.org

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‘Turn again’

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Holly Flora

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) painted this episode from Acts 3 as part of a series of scenes (all showing biblical stories) created in homage to the art of Raphael (1483–1520). Poussin borrows many of the compositional elements and figure types from Raphael’s fresco of the School of Athens in the Vatican, as well as the Renaissance master’s tapestry cartoon of the same subject made for the Sistine Chapel.

Employing a one-point perspective, an artistic technique developed and used extensively during the Italian Renaissance, Poussin shows Peter, with John at his side, at the heart of the scene. They stand at the top of a flight of stairs, while groups of figures placed to the right and left help to create the illusion of three-dimensional space.

The result is a balanced and harmonious painting, yet the impending miracle is almost upstaged by the figures in the foreground. Most of the figures on the right—such as an old and a young man exchanging glances while passing each other, and a woman carrying her purchases in a basket on her head—don’t seem to notice what is happening at the centre. The plight of the poor and sick is seemingly such an everyday occurrence as to escape the notice of most.

Poussin's decision to place the miracle so far back in the composition might be a challenge to us. Is it possible that we might be like these passers-by—able quite easily to overlook the poor and sick (and even the miraculous) if we choose to? Our alternative could be to emulate the awareness of two more exceptional onlookers: the small boy who looks back toward the lame man, and the astonished-looking man just behind him. This man looks across to where, in the left foreground of the painting, a passing nobleman drops a coin into the hand of an emaciated widow, whose baby is shown playfully grasping his own foot.

The man marvels at an act of charitable help. But the fact that the Apostles will not simply help, but actually heal, the lame man means that the boy is about to see something even greater.