The senses are key to acts of healing as described in the Bible, and in Acts 3, sight and touch in particular are highlighted. The text states that Peter and John first looked at the lame man, and demanded that he look back at them, as a prelude to his healing (v.4). Medieval and Renaissance Christians considered sight the most powerful and primary of the senses, fundamental to the pursuit of knowledge and a prerequisite to belief (e.g. Augustine On Free Will 2.14). Vision was linked to faith in biblical exegesis; therefore, exegetes were naturally drawn to the fact that the cripple is asked to ‘see’ before he is touched by Peter, and only then can he walk. All three paintings of this subject thus underscore the power of the senses.
Via his visual focus on the pairing of John and Peter, Cimabue reinforces the idea that sight and touch are emblematic sensory aspects of the vita mixta practised by the Franciscans, the patrons of this work. Their way of life is a blending of the vita activa (the active life of preaching and service to the poor) with the vita contemplativa (the contemplative life of prayer). John, traditionally read as the visionary Apostle who saw and recorded his vision of the Apocalypse, is frequently cited in Christian exegesis as a model of the vita contemplativa (e.g. Augustine Harmony of the Gospels 1.5; taken up by Aquinas in his prologue to Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John). Sight—including visionary capabilities that take the idea of sight beyond the physical—is therefore John’s purview, and accordingly, Cimabue presents the figure of John to the left of the composition, standing still with his gaze fixed firmly on the eyes of the lame man. Peter, as the Christ-appointed founder of the early Church, was instead emblem of the vita activa, associated with the work of one’s hands, via touch. Cimabue’s mural thus shows Peter, in contrast to John, in motion, striding forward in the act of taking the man by the hand, lifting him up as he is healed.
In Masaccio’s version of the story, our attention is drawn to the mesmerizing gazes of Peter and John by giving them exceptionally wide, dark eyes. Peter stretches his hand toward the lame man and the man returns this gesture, but their hands do not yet touch. We are left to imagine what will happen in the next moment; the viewer therefore becomes a firsthand witness to the precise moment of the miracle. Such a dramatic yet personal presentation is in perfect harmony with the contemporary Florentine setting in which Masaccio sets this scene: an event of the past becomes an event of the present.
The sense of touch is also central to Nicolas Poussin’s rendition of Acts 3. Here, Peter is at the centre of the composition, stretching his open hand toward the lame man, who reaches up with his hand in response, palm down and first finger outstretched. Their gestures intentionally recall the Creation of Adam scene in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome. Beyond the artist’s homage to that legendary Renaissance image, this portrayal links Peter’s healing gift to the life-giving power of God. Invoking the senses of sight and touch, John draws our attention to the divine source of the miracle, grasping the lame man’s arm while pointing to heaven.
That all this takes place ‘in the name’ of Jesus Christ (Acts 3:6) suggests that the risen and ascended one is nevertheless still intensely present. But he cannot now be seen except in the forms of the Apostles who speak the words and do the deeds he did. Hence their summons to the lame man to ‘look at us’ (v.4).
And then, in these painted works, a further transposition occurs. The Apostles (and the Jesus they made present at the Beautiful Gate) are made present all over again—this time in paint. This time the summons to the lame man in verse 5 becomes a summons to us, to ‘fix our attention upon them’.
Augustine. Harmony of the Gospels. 1888. St Augustine: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: First Series, Vol. 6, trans. by Philip Schaff (New York: The Christian Literature Company)
______. On Free Choice of the Will. 1993. Trans. by Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing), p.57
Thomas Aquinas. 2010. Commentary on the Gospel of John: Chapters 1–5, trans. by Fabian Larcher and James Weisheipl (Washington: Catholic University of America Press)
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.”