This late third-century painting is one of only two surviving scenes in the Roman catacombs of the healing of the woman with an issue of blood. The woman’s left knee is bent and her right knee is touching the ground, as if she has just dropped into this position. The painter captures the very moment of the woman’s healing as told in Matthew 9:20–22, which takes place just after Jesus speaks, as a result of his deliberate action.
Jesus’s mantle is plain and undyed, worn in a fashion typical of the time, without luxurious trappings or colour. The string which the woman grasps at its hem is the artist’s interpretation of what is referred to as the ‘edge’ (Greek: kraspedon) of Jesus’s mantle (not mentioned in Mark’s account). This was sometimes used as a technical term for what in Hebrew is called a tsitsith, a tassel on mantles of Jewish men (Numbers 15:38 LXX) (Taylor 2018: 180). The artist is, very unusually, attempting to render this feature (though not accurately, as the tassel would not have been where the woman seizes it).
Despite the painting’s simplicity (the crowd mentioned repeatedly in the Gospel accounts has not been included), the vivid movement in this work implies a poignant interaction between the two people shown. Christ is smiling, and is gesturing backwards with his right hand towards the woman as he swings around. The woman’s wide eyes in the painting tell us not only of her fear but also of her wonder. It is almost as if she is feeling the impact of the sensation of being healed.
In terms of the Gospel story, the painter asks viewers to exclude from consideration all the other people mentioned—the crowd and Jesus’s disciples—and to focus purely on the extraordinary moment of the woman’s initiative. She is so full of faith and so assertive that she grasps hold of Jesus’s clothing as he walks. She is rewarded by Jesus’s compassionate response and miraculous cure.
Identifying with her, we, too, may be wide-eyed in remembering this miracle.
Taylor, Joan E. 2018. What Did Jesus Look Like? (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark)
20 And behold, a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment; 21 for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well.” 22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.
24b And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him. 25 And there was a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years, 26 and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard the reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. 28 For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.” 29 And immediately the hemorrhage ceased; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone forth from him, immediately turned about in the crowd, and said, “Who touched my garments?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’ ” 32 And he looked around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had been done to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
42b As he went, the people pressed round him. 43 And a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years and could not be healed by any one, 44 came up behind him, and touched the fringe of his garment; and immediately her flow of blood ceased. 45 And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the multitudes surround you and press upon you!” 46 But Jesus said, “Some one touched me; for I perceive that power has gone forth from me.” 47 And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48 And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”