This painting shows one of the seven acts of charity described in the Gospel of Saint Matthew and was part of a series that Murillo painted for the church of the Hospital de la Caridad in Seville. The Caridad was a charitable brotherhood dedicated to helping the poor and sick of the city; Murillo himself was a member.
The pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem was periodically visited by an angel, and whoever first touched its water after this would be cured of illness. Christ went to the pool and heard a sick man complain that someone always stepped into the water before him.
Here, Christ invites the man to stand, curing him; their mirrored hand gestures capture the powerful connection between them. The man’s raised arms create an upward motion, as if he is being lifted from the ground by an invisible force – a visual evocation of the miracle taking place.
This picture was part of a series of six large paintings Murillo made for the church of the Hospital de la Caridad in Seville. The Caridad was a charitable brotherhood dedicated to helping the poor and sick; Murillo himself was a member.
Painted between 1667 and 1670, when the artist’s work was in high demand, the series was among the most important commissions that Murillo undertook for the city. It promotes six of the seven acts of charity described in the Gospel of Saint Matthew: helping the sick, feeding the hungry, replenishing the thirsty, dressing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and visiting prisoners. The seventh act, burying the dead, is represented by a sculpture of Christ’s entombment which forms part of the church’s high altar and remains there today.
This picture shows the act of helping the sick. We see the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, which was periodically visited by an angel – here hovering in the sky amid golden light. Whoever first touched the water after this would be cured of illness. Christ went to the pool, where he heard a sick man complain that someone always stepped into the water before him. Christ spoke to him – ‘Rise, take up thy bed and walk’ (John 5: 8) – and the man was cured. Christ’s gracefully outstretched arm invites the elderly man to stand; the eloquent mirroring of their hands captures the powerful connection between them. The man’s raised arms create an upward motion, as if he is being lifted from the ground by an invisible force – a visual evocation of the miracle taking place. Peter, John and a third apostle witness the event.
We view the scene from beside the man, looking up towards the tall and dignified figure of Christ. His expressive face – the tense brow, widened eyes and open mouth (he is mid-complaint or stunned into silence) – leaves us in no doubt as to his despair. Murillo encourages us to adopt the same empathy as that visibly felt by Christ and his followers. Some of the objects – the jug, the bowl, the man’s crutch – would have been familiar to contemporary viewers; these, and the sniffing dog, add a sense of normalcy and immediacy to the scene, and must have helped viewers identify with it.
During his later career, Murillo adopted a refined style of painting with a limited colour range. Here, the deep, rich tones of the robes of Christ and his apostles contrast with the rather monochromatic buildings beyond. Murillo’s use of perspective is particularly accomplished: the atmosphere becomes softer and hazier as our eye is led deeper into the scene, and areas of light and shade alternate throughout the composition. Murillo has given the background a sketchy appearance using broad, loose brushstrokes, and some of the figures are only suggested.
Murillo’s series of paintings remained in the church of the Hospital de la Caridad until the early nineteenth century. During the French occupation of Seville this painting and four others from the series (these are now in the United States, Canada, and Russia) were taken to Paris on the orders of Joseph Bonaparte, then King of Spain, in 1812.
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