In the Upper Church of the Basilica of Saint Francis at Assisi, the early Renaissance master Cimabue (c.1240–1302) painted stories of the Apostles, beginning with this scene of Peter Healing the Lame Man from Acts 3. Peter, at the centre of the composition, strides forward, taking the hand of the man, while John stands looking on at left. The lower portion of the painting is damaged, but a second figure can be discerned sitting behind the lame man: probably another beggar. A crowd of bearded men stands to the right, expressing astonishment at the scene.
Cimabue structures and frames his composition via bold and precise renderings of architecture. Two sets of buildings with towers flank the scene, while the Temple in the centre serves to create a tripartite division of the composition. The diagonals of these buildings reach upwards to the outer frame of the image, effectively creating an inverted perspective that projects the figures towards the front of the picture plane. The world of the viewer and that of the Apostles become visually joined via this foregrounding of the protagonists.
This sense of physical place is further enhanced by the specific details that Cimabue includes. The Temple is presented as a hexagonal building with an onion-shaped dome and a pediment with four columns. At the centre of the pediment, Cimabue includes an eagle, the Roman emblem of Herod the Great, mounted on the door of the Temple. The artist therefore seeks to transport the viewer visually through this ‘authentic’ vision of the Holy Land.
In Acts 3:6, the disabled man begs for alms, but Peter states explicitly that he has no ‘silver and gold’, a point relevant to the strict Franciscan prohibition against the friars’ handling of money. Instead, like Peter, the friars for whom this fresco was painted were called to perform their deeds of healing and charity without the exchange of money, drawing only upon the power of the name of God.
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.”