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Unknown artist

Jesus Healing the Paralytic at Capernaum, 5th–6th century, Mosaic, Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Alfredo Dagli Orti / Art Resource, NY

Willem Isaacsz. van Swanenburg

The Paralytic Lowered Through the Roof to Christ (Verlamde door het dak naar Christus neergelaten), 1624–39, Engraving, 311 x 236 mm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Purchased 1885, RP-P-1885-A-9080, Courtesy of Rijksmuseum

Stanley Spencer

The Paralytic Being Let into the Top of the House on his Bed, c.1920, Oil on panel, 29.8 x 33 cm, Private collection, © Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images; Photo: © Peter Nahum at The Leicester Galleries, London / Bridgeman Images

So Many Gathered

Comparative Commentary by

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.

 

References

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]

Next exhibition: Matthew 9:9–13 Next exhibition: Mark 2:13–17 Next exhibition: Luke 5:27–28