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.
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)
9 As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. 2And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6As he said this, he spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle and anointed the man’s eyes with the clay, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloʹam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. 8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar, said, “Is not this the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some said, “It is he”; others said, “No, but he is like him.” He said, “I am the man.” 10They said to him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to Siloʹam and wash’; so I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes. 15The Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” There was a division among them. 17So they again said to the blind man, “What do you say about him, since he has opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.”
18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight, 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age, he will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if any one should confess him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age, ask him.”
24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and said to him, “Give God the praise; we know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you too want to become his disciples?” 28And they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Why, this is a marvel! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe”; and he worshiped him. 39Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this, and they said to him, “Are we also blind?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.