Christ at the Pool of Bethesda by William Hogarth

William Hogarth

Christ at the Pool of Bethesda, 1735–36, Oil on canvas, 416 x 618 cm, St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum and Archive; Presented by the artist, 1737, SBHX7/7.1, Courtesy Barts Health NHS Trust Archives and Museums

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Healing in the Hospital

Commentary by

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.

 

References

Paulson, Ronald. 1992. Hogarth, Vol. 2: High Art and Low, 1732–1750 (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press)