This late third-century painting is one of only two surviving scenes in the Roman catacombs of the healing of the woman with an issue of blood. The woman’s left knee is bent and her right knee is touching the ground, as if she has just dropped into this position. The painter captures the very moment of the woman’s healing as told in Matthew 9:20–22, which takes place just after Jesus speaks, as a result of his deliberate action.
Jesus’s mantle is plain and undyed, worn in a fashion typical of the time, without luxurious trappings or colour. The string which the woman grasps at its hem is the artist’s interpretation of what is referred to as the ‘edge’ (Greek: kraspedon) of Jesus’s mantle (not mentioned in Mark’s account). This was sometimes used as a technical term for what in Hebrew is called a tsitsith, a tassel on mantles of Jewish men (Numbers 15:38 LXX) (Taylor 2018: 180). The artist is, very unusually, attempting to render this feature (though not accurately, as the tassel would not have been where the woman seizes it).
Despite the painting’s simplicity (the crowd mentioned repeatedly in the Gospel accounts has not been included), the vivid movement in this work implies a poignant interaction between the two people shown. Christ is smiling, and is gesturing backwards with his right hand towards the woman as he swings around. The woman’s wide eyes in the painting tell us not only of her fear but also of her wonder. It is almost as if she is feeling the impact of the sensation of being healed.
In terms of the Gospel story, the painter asks viewers to exclude from consideration all the other people mentioned—the crowd and Jesus’s disciples—and to focus purely on the extraordinary moment of the woman’s initiative. She is so full of faith and so assertive that she grasps hold of Jesus’s clothing as he walks. She is rewarded by Jesus’s compassionate response and miraculous cure.
Identifying with her, we, too, may be wide-eyed in remembering this miracle.
Taylor, Joan E. 2018. What Did Jesus Look Like? (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark)