Stanley Spencer had worked as a hospital orderly in Macedonia during the First World War and must have encountered soldiers paralysed in conflict. The paralysed man in this biblical narrative may therefore have put him in mind of his wartime experiences.
But Spencer sets the scene neither in Macedonia, nor in the biblical Capernaum, but in his home village of Cookham in Berkshire, England, which was the setting for many of the artist’s biblical paintings.
The house is that of Spencer’s next-door neighbours, and the ladders belong to a local builder (Christie’s: 1999). These real-life, local details embody the event in the artist’s own time and place. The Gospel narrative is not just something that happened in first-century Capernaum. It is a miracle that is relived in day-to-day village life.
As Mark describes, a crowd is spilling out of the house where Jesus is preaching (2:2). Jesus himself is not seen in this image because we are viewing the event from outside.
Closely following the narrative in Mark and Luke, Spencer depicts the paralysed man being lowered through a gap in the roof of the house.
Among the onlookers in this scene, some figures on the left are bending backwards to watch the precarious manoeuvre, and to the right, another figure views it from a tree. They are witnessing a feat of human ingenuity in the hoisting of the man through the roof, but a greater cause for amazement is about to occur inside.
This image is therefore one of anticipation and hope for the miraculous in this time and place.
Christie’s. 1999. ‘Lot Essay: Sir Stanley Spencer, R.A. (1891-1959), The Paralytic Being Let into the Top of the House on his Bed’, https://www.christies.com/lot/lot-1472090 [accessed 21 December 2020]
9 And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. 2And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” 3And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” 4But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 6But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, take up your bed and go home.” 7And he rose and went home. 8When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.
2 And when he returned to Caperʹna-um after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he was preaching the word to them. 3And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. 4And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. 5And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” 6Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7“Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question thus in your hearts? 9Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? 10But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11“I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.” 12And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”
17 On one of those days, as he was teaching, there were Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting by, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem; and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 18And behold, men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they sought to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; 19but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. 20And when he saw their faith he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” 21And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this that speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only?” 22When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? 23Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, take up your bed and go home.” 25And immediately he rose before them, and took up that on which he lay, and went home, glorifying God. 26And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen strange things today.”