IN-SIGHT: ‘Healing of the blind man of Jericho’ by Lucas Van Leyden (1531)
We are in the Dutch provinces of the 1500’s. The Dutch Revolt (1568 – 1648) and the Reformation (1517 – 1648) brought a serious strain to the role of the artist. The Protestant insurgency and iconoclasm claimed violence all over the provinces. Churches were sacked, stained glasses crushed and images destroyed. As a result Dutch art witnessed a sharp shift from the sacred to the secular.
Artist began depicting pedlars, peasants, beggars, courting couples, money changers and other local figures in their art works. This gave rise to what is called the ‘genre’ movement which further enhanced the development of painting in the Dutch Golden Age (17th century). The humorous portrayal of the ‘uncivilised man’ or the ‘dysfunctional mortal’ in art helped ponder and reflect on human virtues and vices.
The beauty of this genre is wonderfully expressed in today’s painting. The subject is that of ‘The healing of the blind man of Jericho’. The theme of ‘the restoration of sight’ was in itself revolutionary. Promoted by the Council of Trent, it symbolized the purification of the Catholic Church post the Protestant Reformation. The work in consideration is executed by Lucas Van Leyden, a Dutch engraver and painter who achieved much in his short life span of around 39 years (1494 – 1533).
The painting forms a part of a triptych (three panel painting) which was intended to feature on the walls of a hospital in Leyden as an assurance of physical and spiritual recovery. Therefore the hinged wings of the triptych feature not saints but rather the commissioners of the work of art. The figures stand tall holding heralds depicting their coat-of-arms. Interestingly, the woman is portrayed sans footwear, perhaps alluding to her simplicity and humility.
As we gaze at her beauty, we are beckoned by the buzz in the central panel.
Jericho, the ancient city thrown down by the trumpets of Israel, had gathered herself to form a hub for the rich and the rulers of the period. Herod, the Great, built his winter palace within its flourishing oasis. The city always bustled with activity. The road that ran through Jericho was strategic for several merchants, pilgrims and soldiers traversed along its path in order to reach Jerusalem. Thus the roadway formed a focal point for an army of beggars to win monetary gifts through melancholic moans.
One such ‘blind beggar’ was Bartimaeus (literally ‘Son of Timaeus’). He sensed the vibe and heard the bustle that the famous Teacher of Nazareth was passing that way. He seized the opportunity and cried out ‘Son of David, Jesus have pity on me!’ Van Leyden vividly depicts this Messianic title through the ‘stump of Jesse’ that features in the foreground of the painting. Against the stump leans a little crippled boy who directs us to scene two. Refusing to be hushed by the surging crowd, the blind beggars’ persevering pleas passed through the hollow hosannas and reached the heart of Jesus.
On being called, without a moment’s hesitation, he cast off his garments (read ‘old way of life’) and came to the Healer seeking restoration. His little son tagged along with a satchel across his neck and a stick in his hand. The crowd gasped. Van Leyden courageously presents the distinct dichotomy of the moment through his clear composition.
Notice the colourful crowd around the protagonist. It consist of the disciples of Christ, various contemporary citizens, soldiers, monks, Pharisees, royal ministers, women and children who in some way are urging each other to bear witness to the miracle in their midst. They are dressed in a 16th century attire, devoid of idealization. They project a variety of emotions: right from curiosity to criticism, from complain to discussion, from awe to assessment. And yet, how frail was their vision for they failed to envision or bear the faith of the one without sight.
A closer glance reveals deeper insights. Notice that the blind ‘beggar’ sports elegant foot-wear. What does this indicate? The depiction is clearly influenced by the writings of St. Augustine. According to the Doctor of the Church, ‘Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, had fallen from some position of great prosperity and was now regarded as an object of the most notorious and the most remarkable wretchedness.’ Thus Bartimaeus, on encountering Christ, was healed not only of his physical ailment but also of his moral and spiritual blindness.
On being restored, Bartimaeus chooses to go ‘His way’ and follows Jesus from Jericho to Jerusalem, where Christ would soon be crucified. This detail is reiterated by the silhouette of the cross in the background to our left.
That day, Bartimaeus found a fabulous friend in Jesus. No longer would he be afraid of the ‘darkness’ for Christ, his Light, was always In-sight!
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557
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