The house is so crowded that some have to peer in from the open door. But there is a man who cannot walk, who has to be carried. And he needs to get to Jesus, the man that everyone is there to see and listen to.
This predicament is described vividly by Mark and Luke. The solution: find another way into the house, by opening the roof and lowering the paralysed man to Jesus.
Matthew’s account of this miracle does not describe how the man was brought to Jesus, only that he was being carried on a bed (9:2). And the crowd is only mentioned at the end of Matthew’s narrative, where they are filled with awe at seeing the man walk (9:8).
The Ravenna mosaicist, Willem Isaacsz. van Swanenburg, and Stanley Spencer have all focused on the version of events in Mark and Luke, where the man is lowered through the roof of a house. But each artist presents us with a different perspective on this precarious operation.
Van Swanenburg captures the chaos of the crowd inside the house and the man being lowered into their midst. This commotion contrasts starkly with the visual economy of the Ravenna mosaic, where the crowd is absent, and the event appears to be taking place outside the house. Spencer also situates us outside, but in his painting the main event is taking place inside, so we only see the crowd spilling out of the door and the man being lowered into the roof.
Crowds can be places of both celebration and persecution; both joy and danger; and both inclusion and exclusion. Throughout the Gospels, there are numerous narratives that show how fine the lines can be between the different roles that crowds can play.
In the story of the healing of the paralysed man at Capernaum, the crowd is an apparently happy gathering of people who want to listen to Jesus (Mark 2:2, Luke 5:17). But it also attracts the suspicion of the scribes and Pharisees (Mark 2:6, Matthew 9:3, Luke 5:21). And it hinders the paralysed man’s access to Jesus (Mark 2:4, Luke 5:19).
Spencer’s depiction of the crowd overflowing from the house seems to emphasise the crowd as a happy gathering in his home village of Cookham. He shows a village coming together, not just to listen to speaker inside the house, but also to help the paralysed man to find a way in. A local labourer has lent the ladders (Christie’s, 1999), and other villagers are stopping to watch the man being lowered (rather than joining the crowd peering into the house for a glimpse of Jesus).
Some of van Swanenburg’s figures are also community-spirited, helping to guide the man safely down to Jesus. But others look discontented, suggesting that they do not want this man to join their crowd.
There is no crowd in the Ravenna mosaic, but its focus on the man being lowered through the roof can give viewers pause to consider what prevented an easier route to Jesus.
In spring 2020, crowds suddenly became a threat in all parts of the globe. Large gatherings seemed to offer not security but danger, and rapidly became alien to everyday experience. Images like van Swanenburg’s print that is almost overflowing with figures and Spencer’s painting where people spill out of the house suddenly looked strange. They became a reminder of both the problems of close proximity, and of lost freedoms and conviviality. Reflecting on such images and narratives in light of the experience of a time without crowds, we might consider what sorts of gatherings we most value and most need for our flourishing.
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.”