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Thomas Mpira

Jesus the Sing’anga, 21st century, Wood, c. 67 x 40 x 36 cm, KuNgobi Art Craft Center/Mua Malawi, © Thomas Mirpa; Courtesy of Missionsarztliches lnstitut, Wurzburg

Master of Santa María de Taüll

The Healing of the Blind Man and the Raising of Lazarus, c.1125, Fresco, Ermita de San Baudelio de Berlanga, Caltojar, Soria, Spain, Pictures from History / Bridgeman Images

Unknown French artist

Jesus the Apothecary, from the Chants Royaux Sur La Conception Couronne du Puy de Rouen, 1519–28, Manuscript illumination, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, BnF, Fr. 1537, fol. 82v, Bibliothèque nationale de France

Was Blind but Now I See

Comparative Commentary by

Jesus devoted himself to the suffering of the sick and disadvantaged in society. Indeed, he had the power to heal in a physical sense. In each of the four Gospels we find several reports of miraculous healings.

John’s Gospel likes to look at the spiritual implications of such healing and embeds miracles and healing into a theological discourse: are miracles a proof that Jesus is the Son of God? What is the link between sin and illness? In John 9, the issue of ‘being blind’ is ultimately embedded in a discourse about faith in the son of God—the light of the world—and the decision to follow him. ‘Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind”’ (v.39).

These three artworks from different times and cultures show how Christians have attempted to make this biblical tradition of a healing Messiah meaningful in their respective contexts. They all present Jesus as a person who is physically and emotionally close to sick people, and in two cases this ‘Rabbi of Nazareth’ is depicted helping blind and ailing persons using the medicines and techniques of the artists’ time and place. In one example, Jesus assumes the role of an African Sing’anga (healer) and in another, he takes on the role of an apothecary in Renaissance France. By portraying him as a healer in different settings, Jesus’s power to heal is shown to be truly universal—capable of transforming the reality of people everywhere and throughout history.

John underlines that the ‘man who had been blind from birth’ (John 9:1) is not only blind in a purely physical sense. Rather, he uses ‘blindness’ as an expression for people who are blind to a deeper understanding of reality (vv.35–41). These works of art capture the visible aspect of this encounter between Jesus and sick people. During the healing process Jesus addresses them as individuals and establishes a relationship with them. When Jesus touches and heals, he is fully engaged only with the person before him.

In John’s Gospel he then commands the blind man to go to the pool of Siloam (Shiloh) and to wash the clay from his eyes (v.7). Jesus has led the blind man out of his ‘comfort zone’, that is, away from the confines of his limited worldview and his usual territory. After doing so, the man comes forth seeing (John 9:1–7). For the man who was born blind this is a ‘double-win’: for the first time he is able to see in a physical sense, and at the same time he ‘sees’ the true nature of Jesus. ‘He is a prophet’, says the cured man in John’s Gospel (v.17).

In Christian art, the physicality of the act of healing can be powerfully portrayed. The tactile encounter with Jesus, the face-to-face interaction with the ‘Rabbi of Nazareth’, can be given ‘visual presence’, and this can continue to have great appeal to observers today, especially when they are afflicted or dare to hope for a healing encounter with the Messiah themselves.

It is much more difficult for a ‘visual theology’ to illustrate the spiritual dimension of a healing experience. Examining the details of a healing scene between Jesus and the blind man forces us first to absorb the physical healing; only then the metaphorical meaning of a new vision can be introduced and properly understood. This priority of the physical over the spiritual is, incidentally, a specific feature of visual art against other forms of religious experience. Whether an act of contemplation triggers a spiritual experience will depend on one’s openness to absorb the deeper dimensions of healing, so that one’s inner eyes are also opened and cured of their blindness towards the spiritual reality of life.

Although popular during the first centuries of the Church’s life in the writings of various patristic theologians, the theme of Christ as physician or healer progressively receded into the background of theology and of Christian iconography. Other topics such as Christ the King, Prophet, High Priest, Lamb of God, etc. have achieved more dominance. Until recently, much theology has been oriented towards a separation of body (matter) and soul (spirit) and has seen the principal aim of Christian disciples as being the achievement of eternal salvation in the next life, rather than of wholeness in this one. This has been accompanied by a ‘delegation’ of the area of healing and the physical well-being of the human being to medical practitioners.

The exhibits shown here remind us that in a Christian concept of healing these realities cannot be separated, just as they were not separated in the healing ministry of Jesus.

 

References

Brown, Raymond E. 2003. An Introduction to the Gospel of John, ed. by Francis J. Maloney (New York: Doubleday)

Moles, John. 2011. ‘Jesus The Healer in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and Early Christianity’, HISTOS, 5: 117–82

Pilch, John J. 2000. Healing in the New Testament: Insights from Medical and Mediterranean Anthropology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress)

Next exhibition: John 10:22–42