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The Cure of a Sick Man at the Pool of Bethesda

The Pool at Bethesda.

Giovanni Panini (1691-1765). The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Villahermosa Palace – Madrid. Ca. 1724.

John the Evangelist tells the story of the curing of a sick man at the pool of Bethesda in the New Testament.

Jesus went to Jerusalem for a Jewish festival. He came by a pool with five porticos. The pool was called ‘Bethesda’ in Hebrew. It was thought that an Angel of God came sometimes down to the pool and disturbed the water. The first person to enter the pool then was known to be cured. Under the porticos gathered many sick people, paralysed people, lame and blind, waiting for the water to stir miraculously. Jesus walked by the pool and spoke to the sick. A man had an illness since thirty-eight years and when Jesus heard that the man had suffered for so long he asked the man whether he wanted to be well again. The man answered that he had nobody to put him into the pool when the water got disturbed and so someone else was always before him in the water to be cured by the actions of the Angel. Jesus then said, ‘Get up, pick up your sleeping-mat and walk around.’ From that moment, the man was cured. The man did not know Jesus but they met later in the Temple and Jesus there addressed himself to the man again, saying, ‘Do not sin anymore lest something worse may happen to you than your past illness!’

This happened on a Sabbath and the Jews began to harass Jesus for having cured a man on the Sabbath. But Jesus said to them that on a Sabbath his Father still worked, and so was he. This of course infuriated the Jews more, not so much now because of the breaking of the Sabbath, but because Jesus spoke of God as his own Father, which made him the equal of God. Jesus told the Jews that they studied the Scriptures, believing these would bring eternal life. Yet, these Scriptures testified to him and the Jews refused to receive life from Jesus. Jesus said human glory meant nothing to him. He also told them that his own testimony was greater than John the Baptist’s, and that his deeds were ordained by his Father who had sent him. In truth, whoever listened to Jesus ‘ words and believed in him that sent Jesus, would have eternal life.

Giovanni Paolo Panini belongs to the beginning of the eighteenth century, when Baroque art was transforming into Rococo. His own art was one of ‘veduti’, of views of architectures in which small figures moved. Panini was born in Piacenza and trained in Bologna, where the Carracci family had founded a classicist school of painters. He studied architecture and scenography. Later, he became renowned in Rome for his decorations of the palaces of the town’s nobility. Panini painted religious scenes, but these were also mostly fine landscapes and dramatic sights of ancient ruins, as his rich commissioners of the time seemed to like. He was a master in showing fantastic imaginary settings for which he a vivid inspiration. He was also quite well known in France for this style of painting. Since 1711 Panini worked in Rome. He died there in 1765.

Giovanni Panini had read the passage from the New Testament of Saint John about the pool at Bethesda. We imagine him reading stories from the New Testament and reflecting about how he could turn those into grand pictures that showed Roman architectures and landscapes. Not many miracle and parable scenes lent themselves to such handling of the subjects. The phrase on the five porticos in the story of the pool of Bethesda must have immediately struck him as a useful subject. Panini’s specialties were views or ‘veduti’ of classical ruins and scenes set in antique Roman architecture. Painting buildings in the old Roman style was what he liked and his New Testament pictures were merely an excuse for his landscape pictures. But he always had to remain credible and his pictures had to remain justified by a true story of the Bible. He would use the Jewish Temple a subject, as he did in another painting of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, in the ‘Expulsion of the money-changers from the Temple’. But he was also a painter that wanted to remain original and he needed to vary his subjects. The word ‘portico’ must have triggered his imagination for he could use that to show Roman arches as porticos. So that is what we see as most striking feature of the ‘Curing of a sick man at the Pool of Bethesda’ of around 1724.

We see a scene of imposing Roman arches and columns. Panini just hints at the fact that these are ancient ruins. On the upper left side one remarks the loose stones and the lack of a roof, as well as plants growing between the massive stones. The structures are old and unattended. What was once the pool of a patio of a rich Roman patrician is now a gathering place for the sick and the lame. The arches are grand however, majestic and overwhelming. Panini showed dramatic perspective in the lines of the columns to offer a deep view of a patio in which lies the pool of Bethesda.

Panini created a fine sense of space not just by this linear perspective, in which the lines converge to a vanishing point situated in the far Roman arch. He also diligently applied aerial perspective. Thus the front scene is painted in warm colours, in browns and dark orange colours, ochres and yellows. The background however is in grey hues and broken yellows that tend to green and blue. Here also the lines and shapes are more hazy and resemble the blue-grey colours of the sky, an effect that is a true one of nature. Painters had observed since Antiquity that far mountains and structures, which normally should be very dark seen from large distances, appeared in fact in grey-bluish hues. This was a result of the diffusing of light through the particles suspended in the air. Panini used the effect to indicate distance and he created a dramatic impression of depth in this way. Moreover, we see the building in the distance smaller than the near columns, a means of representation that adds to the viewers’ impression of distance. Panini also shows one architectural structure as placed in space one before the other. The Roman arches in the front hide one or more of the buildings in the background. We imagine the continuation of the hidden lines so that we recognise the complete structure of the far building. Painting thus one building ‘in front’ of the other also creates powerful depth and illusion of space in a painting.

Panini’s painting has but one vanishing point in its perspective. The viewer will remark how many lines, such as in the foreground upper foundation of the Roman arches, are parallel to the lower border of the frame. All other lines flee to one point. The main lines of the building in the background are also horizontal and parallel to the viewer. That allows a painter to use only one vanishing point and to concentrate the viewer’s gaze in one direction of depth. Depth then is more powerful. Panini also seldom designed the vanishing point of perspective to lie in the middle of the picture. Panini liked to put the vanishing point somewhat more to the left or the right. So in ‘The Pool at Bethesda’ the vanishing point lies somewhat more to the right, exactly behind the open arch of the background architecture. It is in the open arch so that the view would go deeper than this building. In other of his pictures, Panini might situate the vanishing point on the extreme left or right, even exactly on the left or right vertical frame border, or even outside the frame. Panini obtained very lively representations of architectures then and he sought ever-different ways of creating more powerful illusions of depth this way. It is one of the special characteristics of Panini that he used single point linear perspective in many of his paintings. The reason was of course that in this way the artist could obtain in his pictures such dramatic, concentrated impressions of depth in viewers.

So Panini used the four elements of design that a painter has at his or her disposal to create illusion of depth on a flat canvas. He used linear perspective of lines fleeing to one vanishing point, perspective of height or foreshortening, aerial perspective of colours and he placed architectural structures one before the other, by a play of showing and hiding lines. Panini was the undisputed master of perspective in Rome’s eighteenth century painting.

Light falls through the front arches onto the ochre ground. Once this ground was covered with the same marble as the arches, now we only see earth on the floor. But due to this the setting is almost pastoral, a Roman portico built at the whim of a rich man or set up by a rich community long gone. We discover an ancient civilisation and in the ruins of that civilisation Jesus preaches a new world. In the light before the pool stands this Jesus. He invites with an outstretched arm the sick man to enter the pond and to be cured. Jesus can easily be recognised, as he is dressed in pure red and blue and a halo forms around his head. All along the pool are sick people and a paralytic walking with sticks is prominent in the foreground. Panini arranged the figures along the columns so that the view of the pool and of the deep perspective would not be hampered, but enhanced. The figures are along the columns, so leave the view to the vanishing point of perspective quite open. Moreover, just as the columns of the foreground are higher than those in the back, Panini painted closer figures significantly taller than the figures in the far. Thus Jesus, near the pool, is smaller than the sick men in the foreground. That might have been a problem to Panini, for Jesus had to be remarked easily by his viewers. So he painted Jesus in the only truly pure, bright red and deep blue hues that one can find in the picture.

The painting ‘The Pool at Bethesda’ is an example of a New Testament scene that is an occasion for another painterly goal: to show a grand, imaginary, unreal image of an ancient world of classical antiquity. It is thus a very romantic picture of nostalgia that indicates the ages that have past since Jesus preached and performed his miracles.

Panini produced a grand setting that would have been a dramatic sight in a large dining room of a Roman palace. The picture showed with much skill a scene that would open the hall into a deep view so that it would be perceived larger than it actually was. The picture is a window into the far that could hang on a windowless wall and break the flatness of that wall with a view into space. At the same time Panini could offer a devote picture of Jesus offering charity to the poor and the sick. The master of the house had thus a piece of art that was very decorative, interesting to enlarge his hall, that could prove to guests of the Roman clergy his or her devotion to the church and to the messages of the New Testament. And in his or her lonely hours, the master could ponder with melancholy and intimacy at the old story from ages gone when Jesus cured a sick man at Bethesda.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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