In this painting by the Venetian painter Palma il Vecchio (1480–1528), Christ is surrounded by his disciples while raising his right hand in a gesture of teaching and looking at a pair of women to his right, who seem to look imploringly at the Saviour. The painting was traditionally thought to represent the encounter between Christ and the woman from Nain who lost her husband and thereafter her only son. Even though the biblical text does not suggest that she begged for a miracle, the scene was interpreted as showing the widow approaching Christ to ask for a resurrection—the resuscitation of her child.
But let’s have a closer look. Rather than directly gazing at a digital reproduction of the painting, what we see here is a historical photograph, which is in itself a work of art. Taken by the Italian photographer Carlo Naya (1816–1882), it was one of the first commercially available photographs to feature the isochromatic rendering of colours. Although still limited to black-and-white, this technique allowed for the authentic reproduction of pigments such as yellow, which up until then resulted in darkish tones on the photograph. It was thus possible to represent the photographed subject matter in a more accurate manner.
Around 1907 this photograph of Palma’s painting became part of the photographic collection of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence, where it was made available to scholars who could study the photograph of Palma’s work alongside other representations of the same subject. Partly on account of this close comparative examination of photographic reproductions, contemporary art historians now identify its subject with another episode from the New Testament: the woman from Cana, who implored Christ to heal her demon-possessed daughter (Matthew 15:22–29).
This makes better sense of the imploring looks of the women in the painting, for the woman of Cana believed in the healing power of Jesus and asked him to intervene in favour of her daughter.
The widow of Nain, meanwhile, was given a miracle without having asked for it. As Cyril of Alexandria observes, in this event of radical grace: ‘Christ draws near without being invited. No one summoned him to restore the dead man to life, but he comes to do so of his own accord’ (Commentary on Luke, Homily 36).
Cyril of Alexandria. Commentary on the Gospel of St Luke.1983. Trans. by R. Payne Smith (Long Island: Studion Publishers)
Rylands, Philip. 1988. Palma il Vecchio, l’opera completa (Milan: Mondadori), p. 293
11 Soon afterward he went to a city called Naʹin, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. 12As he drew near to the gate of the city, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a large crowd from the city was with her. 13And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14And he came and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” 15And the dead man sat up, and began to speak. And he gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized them all; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” 17And this report concerning him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.