Healing of the Possessed Man of Gerasa by Paul Bril

Paul Bril

Healing of the Possessed Man of Gerasa, 1601, Oil on copper, 27 x 36 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, inv.no. 876, bpk Bildagentur / Alte Pinakothek, Munich / Art Resource, NY

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A Whimsical Landscape

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The man healed by Christ is still raving, flapping his arms around, and needs to be restrained by two other people. Meanwhile, the herd of demon-possessed pigs is running towards the cliff behind them, jumping into the water in sheer panic. A cloud of dust surrounds the drowning animals. This narrative is played out in the foreground of an overwhelming landscape: a river scene with an imaginary Italianate port, jagged rocks on either side of the water, and a monumental tree on the left. The smooth surface of the copper support enabled subtle details and luminous colours. There is a transition from brown in the foreground, via shades of green, to blue and white on the horizon, creating a dramatic light and depth. The high viewpoint adds to this. Looking down on the landscape, we can see far into the distance, the biblical figures in the foreground becoming even smaller.

Paul Bril, born in the south of the Netherlands, was trained as a painter in Antwerp. He travelled to Rome in the early 1570s where he became one the most influential landscape painters of his day, together with his brother Matthijs. He was especially well-known for his large fresco cycles in Roman palaces. Although the two brothers played an important role in the development of the genre, autonomous landscape painting was still regarded as one of the lower art forms in Italy, and distinctly inferior to narrative painting. Without making concessions to the quality of his dramatic and whimsical landscapes, Bril could increase the status of his paintings by including a biblical scene.

Jesus, his disciples, the possessed man, and the swine, all inhabit Bril’s landscape, but they do not dominate it. Rather, they are shown to be part of a greater whole. In this connection, Bril’s landscape may help us to reflect on how this biblical episode points to a wider world beyond the Jewish people. The healing took place near Gerasa (in Mark 5:1 and Luke 8:26) or Gadara (in Matthew 8:28) which was part of the Decapolis, a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman empire. It is therefore the only exorcism in the Synoptic Gospels that takes place on gentile territory.

So as the demoniac was sometimes read as representing gentiles in general (e.g. Ambrose, Luke 8), one could say that Jesus did not only free an individual from a demonic power but offered healing to a wider world as well—a world beautifully represented here by Bril (Boring 2006: 151).  



Berger, Andrea. 1991. Die Tafelgemälde Paul Brils (Münster/Hamburg: Lit verlag)

Boring, M. Eugene. 2006. Mark: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)

Wood Ruby, Louisa. 1999. Paul Bril: The Drawings (Turnhout: Brepols)

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