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Beneath the Surface

Comparative Commentary
Commentary by
Joan Taylor

The New Testament presents three versions of this episode. In Mark’s version, the woman knows what has been done to her before Jesus asks ‘Who touched me?’ At his question, Mark 5:33 tells us that she ‘came in fear and trembling and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth’.

The sixth-century mosaic in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo is remarkable for combining the Gospel story with the tradition of Veronica, so the moment of the woman’s explanation in front of Jesus is married with her proffering a cloth on which Christ would reward her faith: Christ says, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease’ (Mark 5:34). While both Matthew (9:20–22) and Luke (8:43–48) have shortened versions of this whole story, the woman’s self-revelation is omitted in Matthew, and Jesus turns to see the woman. Luke, on the other hand, builds up the moment with more detail: ‘And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed’ (Luke 8:47). The Ravenna artist takes Mark and/or Luke as the basic text for this portrayal of Christ’s compassion and miracle-making power. The image actually gives us a double miracle: Christ had already made the woman well when the power went out of him without his own deliberate action, but he is about to effect an image of himself on the cloth. We are held between two wonders.

In the late third-century wall painting from the catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus, by contrast, the painter is commenting on Matthew’s version of the story: ‘Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter, your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well’ (Matthew 9:22).

In the fourth-century sarcophagus relief, it is also Matthew’s version that is shown, in that Jesus turns around and speaks to the woman. In most sarcophagi the woman is shown as very compact, at Christ’s feet, almost curled up into a ball and squashed into the edge of the scene, but here she is not as small as elsewhere, and she literally stops Jesus in his tracks. In addition, the sarcophagus’s juxtaposition of the stories of Christ’s healing with Susanna and the Elders (recounted in the Greek Septuagint additions to Daniel) creates an intertextuality that suggests that the woman’s faithful action and assertion of her touch correlates with Susanna’s faithful virtue and assertion of her innocence: both are rewarded with divine actions. Daniel, sitting on a judgement seat in the centre, signifies the just discernment of God and the action of the Holy Spirit (LXX Daniel 13:44–46).

The sarcophagus image removes the crowd and disciples, but we do still have an accompanying figure, as in the Ravenna mosaic, with a scroll: the evangelist who tells the story, and who can also somehow be read as a companion within the story. In two of our three images then, the authors of the Gospel texts are brought out of the shadows to stand in the scene, as if they are not so much long-gone writers who remembered what they saw as living storytellers in front of a contemporary audience.

As for Christ himself, he is a standing, active figure in all three scenes: the miracle-maker, the healer, and the bearer of divine power. The Ravenna mosaic asks viewers to see him as not only royal, in terms of his clothing, but also as godly: he has the golden locks of Dionysus (Mathews 1999: 116–19, figs 88, 89; Taylor 2018: 90–98). Likewise, the sarcophagus shows him as divine with similar curly hair and good looks. However, in the catacomb painting his power is not obvious from his appearance: he is dressed plainly and his face and hair are ordinary. His power is invisible, less expected; it is all shown in the woman’s wide eyes. Her faith is made all the more remarkable by the fact that she has known what lies beneath the surface.

 

References

Mathews, Thomas F. 1999. The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art, Revised and expanded edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

Taylor, Joan E. 2018. What Did Jesus Look Like? (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark)