In the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence’s Oltrarno neighbourhood, the Florentine master Masolino (c.1383–c.1447) and his younger and soon-to-be more famous collaborator Masaccio (1401–1428) frescoed a chapel with scenes from the life of Peter. The cycle includes this scene of Peter Healing the Lame Man.
The story in Acts 3 recounts the first miracle that the Apostles perform after the death of Christ. Masaccio depicts Peter and John at the centre of a perfectly balanced composition; at left, the lame man sits with his back to the viewer, reaching up towards Peter, who extends his right hand towards him. As emphasized in the biblical text, John and Peter exchange powerful glances with the beggar (Acts 3:4–5); their eyes meet and the viewer of the fresco prepares to watch the impending miracle unfold.
Masaccio depicts this scene within what would have been for him a contemporary cityscape. Solomon’s portico is shown as a Renaissance loggia; in the background we see palaces with their crenellated walls, wooden balconies, and terracotta roofs. Signs of Florentine everyday life abound: two noblemen strut nearby, their lush brocades and fashionable hats contrasting with the bare feet and heads of the Apostles. A young woman leads her toddler by the hand, laundry hangs drying, and even an intrepid cat prowls outside a window.
Masaccio stages the scriptural narrative clearly and boldly, yet the viewer cannot help but be distracted by the vibrant vignettes of Renaissance urban living throughout the painting. Such a setting would help the viewer to imagine biblical history as part of a continuum with his or her present reality, and serve as a reminder that miracles happen every day, sometimes right under our noses. Or, to echo Peter’s words, ‘in the presence of us all’.
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.”