Saint Peter Healing the Lame Man by Cimabue


Saint Peter Healing the Lame Man, c.1280, Fresco, Upper Church of the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Umbria, Scala / Art Resource, NY

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What’s In A Name?

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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. 

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