The Pool of Bethesda is one of two biblical paintings that William Hogarth painted for London’s St Bartholomew’s Hospital (known as ‘Bart’s’) in the 1730s and which remain in the hospital’s collection (the other is The Good Samaritan, 1736–37).
Jesus’s healing miracles have long been subjects of works of art made for hospitals. Such artworks place the work of the hospital in a tradition of caring for the sick that follows the example of Christ.
Here, Hogarth depicts the sick at the pool of Bethesda suffering a variety of medical afflictions. There is a popular tradition that Hogarth modelled the figures on hospital patients. Although this idea is not verifiable, it speaks to the relevance of this subject to its location. Patients attending Bart’s might recognize their own conditions in the painting.
In Hogarth’s day, miracles were being called into question by critics such as Thomas Woolston, who published a series of six discourses on the miracles of Jesus in the late 1720s. As Ronald Paulson has argued in his comprehensive study of the artist, Hogarth himself seems to have understood the biblical miracles as allegory (Paulson 1992: 89–91). Whether viewers believed the biblical narrative to be fact or allegory, this image of healing could offer hope to the hospital patients that they might be ‘made whole’ (v.11)—something which may be no less true today.
At the start of the narrative, the sick man tells Jesus that he has no one to help him into the pool when the waters periodically become healing for the first person to enter the pool. Hogarth depicts the injustice of the fact that not all patients have access to the healing waters: in the background, a mother with a sick baby is being pushed away by the servants of a wealthy woman.
Today, Bart’s Hospital is run by the National Health Service, the universal healthcare system in the United Kingdom. Hogarth’s picture can say new things in this new context: all of the sick can receive treatment here, just as Jesus’s ministry was inclusive of individuals from all walks of life.
Paulson, Ronald. 1992. Hogarth, Vol. 2: High Art and Low, 1732–1750 (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press)
5After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Beth-zaʹtha, which has five porticoes. 3In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. 5One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” 7The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” 8Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” 9And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked.
So the Jews said to the man who was cured, “It is the sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet.” 11But he answered them, “The man who healed me said to me, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk.’ ” 12They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk’?” 13Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. 14Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” 15The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. 16And this was why the Jews persecuted Jesus, because he did this on the sabbath. 17But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” 18This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his own Father, making himself equal with God.