William Hogarth, Emma Stebbins, and Trevor Nickolls all engaged with John’s narrative of the man being healed at Bethesda in response to the specific contexts of healing in which their own work was situated. Hogarth was painting for a hospital, and he depicted the sick at the pool in the manner of hospital patients. Stebbins was designing a fountain to celebrate an aqueduct that brought clean water to New York City and improved public health. Nickolls was working in response to his own recuperation from an accident. In all three artworks, Bethesda represents a place of healing. An actual place becomes a spiritual place in the imaginations of those who then once again actualize it in real and specific locations.
In John’s account, the pool of Bethesda was a place where the sick went to be cured. This point is emphasized in a probable later addition to the text that was included in some translations of the New Testament:
For 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’. (John 5:4)
The verse is usually footnoted in modern translations, but the angel stirring up the waters has a strong reception-history in art, and includes the works by Hogarth and Stebbins discussed here.
This narrative is about more than a man being restored to health, however. As is highlighted by Hogarth’s depiction of the mother of a sick baby being pushed aside by the servants of a wealthy woman, access to the pool in Jerusalem may have been limited by various forms of social capital. John hints at such restrictions in the words of the sick man who tells Jesus that he has no one to help him into the pool when the waters are stirred up (v.7).
Stebbins’s Angel watches over Bethesda Terrace in Central Park, a public space that is open to all. But for much of its history, Central Park was a place only for the white elite, and part of the space on which it was built in the nineteenth century was Seneca Village, which was home to black and Irish communities. Their homes and communities were destroyed by the park. This was a place where, as at the pool in Jerusalem, some were excluded.
In this narrative, Jesus challenges the status quo. He heals the man whom society has marginalized, and he does so on the Sabbath, which leads to his own persecution (v.16). Hogarth’s depiction of injustice at Bethesda, and the histories of Central Park in which Stebbins’s Angel is situated, resonate with this aspect of John’s narrative. They can remind the viewer that Jesus was an activist, and can encourage us to emulate Jesus’s example of challenging injustice. How can we, like Jesus, heal sicknesses in our societies, whether medical, spiritual, or political?
Nickolls’s Bethesda series is more introspective and can therefore speak to John’s narrative in a different way. The drawings were produced while Nickolls was recovering from a car accident. They are a response to the artist’s physical recuperation, but are also a cathartic meditation upon—and were part of—Nickolls’s process of recovery as a whole. A violent accident leaves more than physical scars.
When Jesus and the man that he healed at Bethesda later meet in the Jerusalem Temple, Jesus says to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you’ (v.14). The implication is that the man was morally as well as physically unwell. The association between moral and physical health here and in other episodes in Jesus’s ministry may no longer be accepted, and we can read that identification as allegory. Nevertheless, this aspect of the narrative highlights that there are different kinds of illness, and for this reason Jesus’s example can stand for different kinds of healing.
As expressions of his psychological recovery from his accident, the works in Nickolls’s Bethesda series are about more than physical healing. Jesus’s parting words to his patient also assert that the man must play a role in ensuring his own continued health. We might see a parallel too in Nickolls’s support of his own recuperation through his art. He imagines his own restorative world in his Dreamtime landscapes.
In these three artworks, Bethesda variously stands for a place of medical treatment, for clean water and public space, and for recovery from trauma through the practice of art. They therefore speak to different types of healing. The works and their contexts can also challenge viewers to emulate Jesus’s work at Bethesda by creating their own places of healing.
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.