Faith and Art: Christ Healing the Mother of Simon Peter’s Wife

By Joynel Fernandes –

Balance, elegance, harmony, symmetry of composition, flatness of paint….these are probably the ad hoc adjectives to describe the painting in consideration. These features also adhere to the Renaissance style of art that focused on the ‘eternal’ in an earthly setting.

However a glance at the date of composition of the painting flings forth an artistic shock. Why does John Bridges in 1839, an English painter of the 19th century employ the artistic traditions of the 15th century age of revival? Is he consumed by a culture lag? Or does he seek to revive the swag and the style of a ‘forgotten’ era?

Read forth to explore the mental dynamics and the origins of his style.

As the Renaissance galloped its way to the Baroque and the Rococo, it confronted an art of persuasion accentuated by drama, realism, bold contrast, physicality, palpability and exuberant ornamentation. Beaming with energy, this art was meant to capture the senses and awaken emotions. The figures of the painting and the viewers of art merged together to share each other’s space and time. The divine and the earthly collided.

But not everyone was happy with this encounter. A few artists decided to do away with the vigour and passions provoked by the French Revolution (1789 – 1799). They left Germany and France and marched forward to Rome – Rome, which had lost its worldly powers but not its essence of the eternal and the universal. Thus sprung forth the ‘Nazarene movement’

Their main aim was to deny the ‘materiality’ of the painting and to direct the viewer to a more abstract spiritual quality. Art to them was not a de luxe product meant to beautify private homes or sold at exhibitions. Rather they believed in art as the crib of the expression of the daily and a meditation of the heavenly.

They lived to relive the Renaissance. Quite literally! For they worked not in studios but in the monastic existence of a small cell. They took small, simple meals and met each evening in the foyer to discuss and exchange ideas. They could not afford to engage live models and hence modelled for each other. Female models were out of question for fear of impurity affecting the quality of their art. They styled their hair ‘alla Nazarena’ i.e. shoulder length parted down the middle, perhaps in an attempt to imitate Raphael or even Christ.

Christ and His Gospel was their primary subject and objective. John Bridges pursues this psychology through his painting in consideration. It is a rendezvous between faith and art. The narrative is derived from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 1, verses 29 to 39.

At once we encounter the perspective of space. The scene is set in a stone walled room with a linear tiled floor. A cylindrical beam supports the structure at the outside. On the inside a group of figures surround the protagonists. To our extreme right is the youthful John, his curious curls stream down his neck as his gestures attempt to anticipate the desired.

On the either side of Jesus stand the two brothers, Peter to his right and Andrew to his left. Andrew is seen comforting his elderly father. Besides him stands James who lifts his hands in prayer while his eyes display astonishment. An angelic maiden kneels before the Lord, pleading in prayer and hoping in faith. Will Christ hearken her heart?

As day light floods in, it traverses through Christ to the protagonist and smears the room. Peter’s mother–in–law is seated on a wood beamed bed, supported by her daughter. Notice the fluffy blanket and the designed mattress. Disegno et colorito it announces!

As Peter’s wife affectionately holds her mother, she prods forward her mother’s hand and gaze to the Saviour standing before them. Christ poised in contrapposto raises his left hand in benediction as His right hand extends towards the patient as if transmitting the power of healing and ‘lifting her up’. To be ‘lifted’ to a new life is reminiscent of Christ and His resurrection. The meeting of the hands, the meeting of bondage and salvation, is witnessed by Peter, the rock on which the Church was built.

Blessed with healing, Peter’s mother-in- law goes on to be a blessing to others. A hint at the succeeding events of the Gospel is observed at the background where the sick and possessed walked up to the house of Peter and Jesus cured them all.

The beauty of the narrative and its artistic moral function clearly spell out the tenets of the Nazarene movement. The figures are magically powerful, their draperies graceful, their halos typically Renaissance in style. They have a dream like accuracy bound by harmonious hues. Art here was not for art’s sake but rather it served to reconcile God’s word and His action as well as a Renaissance idea and a Nazarene experience. It reconciled Faith and Art!

For a scriptural understanding of today’s Gospel please refer to: http://www.pottypadre.com/saved-to-serve-2/


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Joynel Fernandes is the Assistant Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Mumbai. She is currently pursuing her Masters in History. Researching on Church History and Church art is her passion. She hopes to make its understanding more approachable to the younger generation.

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