Bethesda Fountain, Central Park, New York by Emma Stebbins

Emma Stebbins

Bethesda Fountain (The Angel of the Waters), 1868, Bronze, 8ft tall, Central Park, New York, Patti McConville / Alamy Stock Photo

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Healing in the City

Commentary by

The Angel of the Waters fountain sits in Bethesda Terrace in Manhattan’s Central Park. Designed by Emma Stebbins, it was built to celebrate the Croton Aqueduct, completed in 1842.

The limited fresh water on Manhattan Island was inadequate for the growing population. Worse still, the local water supply had become polluted and spread disease. The Croton Aqueduct brought safe water to New York City, and had a dramatic effect on public health.

Stebbins’s Angel of the Waters alludes to John 5:4—probably a later addition to the biblical text, and one which explains that the sick visited Bethesda because ‘an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had’. Stebbins’s Angel therefore invokes the idea of the angel of Bethesda as an agent of healing in order to celebrate the health benefits of clean water for the city.

The aqueduct is no longer in use, but the Bethesda fountain can continue to represent Central Park as a place of respite, and a green lung in the high-rise city that surrounds it. It is a public space in New York City, just as the pool of Bethesda was in Jerusalem. It speaks to Jesus’s ministry as indiscriminate in the way it reached out to all types and conditions of people

The fountain, Bethesda Terrace where it sits, and Central Park around it, can be viewed as a modern incarnation of the sacred, public space of Bethesda; a place where Jesus’s ministry again can be enacted. This symbolism has been taken up in popular culture. As a public place for Jesus’s ministry, it appears in the film Godspell! (1973) as the site where John the Baptist baptizes disciples. As a place of healing, it is the setting for the final scene in Tony Kushner’s play about the 1980s AIDS epidemic Angels in America (1993).

Jesus’s healing of the infirm man in John 5 is described several times as making the man whole (vv.11, 14, 15); perhaps, under the gaze of Stebbins’s angel, the New Yorker or visitor can find wholeness in Central Park.