Jesus Healing the Paralytic at Capernaum by unknown artist

Unknown artist

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

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A Way In

Commentary by

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.

 

References

Rowton, E. 1918 ‘The Stations of the Cross in the Cathedral’, Westminster Cathedral Chronicle, 12: 50–53


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