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.
3 Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. 2 And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at that gate of the temple which is called Beautiful to ask alms of those who entered the temple. 3 Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. 4 And Peter directed his gaze at him, with John, and said, “Look at us.” 5 And he fixed his attention upon them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. 8 And leaping up he stood and walked and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 9 And all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and recognized him as the one who sat for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
11 While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s, astounded. 12 And when Peter saw it he addressed the people, “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? 13 The God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. 14 But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, 15 and killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16 And his name, by faith in his name, has made this man strong whom you see and know; and the faith which is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.
17 “And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18 But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ should suffer, he thus fulfilled. 19 Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, 20 and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, 21 whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old. 22 Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet from your brethren as he raised me up. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. 23 And it shall be that every soul that does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’ 24 And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came afterwards, also proclaimed these days. 25 You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God gave to your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your posterity shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ 26 God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you in turning every one of you from your wickedness.”