Situated high on the north wall of the nave of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, this mosaic is one of thirteen panels in a sequence depicting Jesus’s public ministry.
Throughout these panels the mosaicist(s) has focused on the principal actors in each Gospel episode. So—notably—there is no crowd in this design, although a gathering is mentioned in all three versions of the narrative.
The absence of the crowd here was probably at least in part a practical decision. The panels are high up and relatively small. Viewed from the floor of the nave, the subject of this design can be readily recognized. The panel would be more difficult to read if it included lots of smaller figures.
The focus on the main people in the story could also have an exegetical function: to direct the viewer to the central event—the miracle of healing by Jesus.
A millennium and a half after the creation of the Sant’Apollinare mosaics, the English artist Eric Gill employed a similar economy of figures in his Stations of the Cross for London’s Westminster Cathedral. Writing pseudonymously, Gill explained that he had omitted the crowd from his designs so that the worshippers could enter into that role (Rowton: 1918).
The absence of attendant figures in the Sant’Apollinare mosaics—including the missing crowd in the miracle at Capernaum—could be viewed in a similar way. The worshipper—or the tourist—in Sant’Apollinare Nouvo can inhabit the roles of those in the narratives who are not depicted. Contemplating this episode, they might ‘become’ the crowd.
Visitors to Sant’Apollinare Nouvo might of course find themselves quite literally in a crowd—in the congregation at the liturgy, or in a throng of tourists. In gathering there for a communal experience, they recall the people assembling to listen to Jesus in Capernaum. That crowd gathered to hear Jesus preaching, but also hindered access to him for a vulnerable person.
Viewing this episode in situ, we might also experience something of the paralysed man’s perspective: from the distant floor of the nave, this Jesus seems relatively inaccessible. But in a congregation gathered in his name, he assures his followers that he is present (Matthew 18:20).
Inhabiting these different roles in the narrative, we might ask ourselves whether we are conscious of who is included and excluded from our congregations, and how the healing activity of Jesus might be present now.
Rowton, E. 1918 ‘The Stations of the Cross in the Cathedral’, Westminster Cathedral Chronicle, 12: 50–53
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.”