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The Healing of the Blind

The Healing of the Blind

Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533). The State Hermitage Museum – Saint Petersburg. Around 1530.

It is to Luke again we have to turn to, to receive a detailed account of this miracle and to hear a story that fits most the painting of Lucas van Leyden.

As Jesus drew near to Jericho there was a blind man sitting at the side of the road begging. When he heard the crowd going past he asked what it was all about, and they told him that Jesus the Nazarene was passing by. So he called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.” The people in front scolded him and told him to keep quiet, but he only shouted all the louder, “Son of David, have pity on me.” Jesus stopped and ordered them to bring the man to him, and when he came up, asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Sir”, he replied, “let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight. Your faith has saved you.” And instantly his sight returned and he followed him praising God, and all the people who saw it gave praise to God. G38

John also tells a similar story. But in this narration John adds various details. The blind man, who was born blind, needs to give account several times in order for the Jews to believe him. John also tells that Jesus spat on the ground, made a paste with the spittle, put this over the eyes of the man and told him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. John’s story is very convincing, epic in breadth and really told as if John had been a witness.

Lucas van Leyden’s work is more true to the story of Luke. The picture was made around 1530 and it is one of the last paintings of the artist. Thus, the painting dates from the period in which Sebastiano del Piombo worked in Rome. What a contrast offers this picture of Lucas van Leyden with the works of the Florentines and the Venetians we have seen so far!

The scene of the healing is situated in a broad landscape, which is almost painstakingly assembled and which certainly lacks the inspiration, the grandeur and the interest of the landscapes of a Joachim Patenier who was the Flemish contemporary of van Leyden. The soul of del Piombo or of Veronese is missing in this picture and its figures. The men and women are nicely drawn, but van Leyden seems to have sought deliberately to demystify the actors. Jesus is an everyday person who passes there by accident and the blind man is an ordinary man, distinguished in nothing from the other people. He is dressed simply, and led by a boy. Mark calls the man Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus.

Van Leyden painted the townsfolk mainly on the right of the picture but also some on the left so that the Jesus’ crowd is surrounded and he seems to mock this crowd gently. For instance the bystanders wear preposterous hats. On the left are Jesus’ disciples, shown as a group of weary travellers. Indeed, at the far left a woman even indicates to a follower of Jesus that something special might be happening. Otherwise the man would not have noticed, as he seems to be more interested in a young lady with a baby at his feet. Notice also some disproportion in the image of van Leyden’s babies; there is a townswoman on the right who has an incredibly small, nude child in her arms and also the baby on the left is in no proportion to the woman holding it. Was this clumsiness of the painter, symbolic representation of the smallness of babies or a reference to older images like those of early Gothic painters?

Instead of elevating the scene and having brought inspiration and soul into the picture, van Leyden has apparently done his best to ban entirely the spiritual meaning of the miracle. Even if this might not be expected of this painter, the picture lacks or deliberately avoided communication and expression of emotion to the viewer. The viewer does not feel engaged. Van Leyden’s ‘Healing of the blind’ is a nice old picture that seems to tell a story of no importance, a passing anecdote. What does seems important for the painter is the small details of everyday life. These details would later be much emphasised by Dutch painters in their specific seventeenth century style of ‘genre’ images. In these pictures scenes of interior life are shown, sometimes mockingly. Spirituality made place for vulgarity in some of these images, which yet were very popular with the burghers of Holland.

And yet, a layer is hidden under this immediate impression. Van Leyden did deeply feel some of the inherent truths of the Gospel stories. His painting is a travel scene. Jesus is on his way. He is simply clad and has no possessions. The people of Jericho are all richly dressed. Maybe Van Leyden understood well that Jesus’ radicalism came from the contrast between his group of travelling peasants, devoid of all possessions, who roamed with a free spirit through Palestine and the people who lived in towns. Jesus needed to travel. Not just to teach. If he had stayed in one place a court would have gathered around him and he would have been assumed to be just another part of the dominant classes, the Pharisees and the Romans. Jesus needed to be a wandering prophet, hence so many scenes of preaches in the open, along the roads and on mountains.

Jesus and his small group of followers would have met the people of the villages and the towns on his way and the contrast would have been great. Van Leyden showed the contrast in his picture. The townspeople would have to accept and make theirs the concepts and ideas of the itinerants. Van Leyden has shown this clash or meeting between two worlds. The healing of the blind, that is a miracle, was probably the most convincing means by which the townspeople could be won to Jesus’ cause. So we find here a picture of reflection on the true Jesus. Van Leyden tried to imagine Jesus as he travelled from village to town, poor and destitute and how he might have won to his cause these people who would at first sight have abhorred or considered him as something of an interesting oddity. Mark specifically adds that the people scolded at Bartimaeus and told him to be quiet. Bartimaeus annoyed the townspeople, but Jesus did the unexpected and instead of turning away from the man spoke to him.

Van Leyden was trying to understand who Jesus really was, without the layers of additional meaning laid upon Jesus by the traditions of the Church, and he brought the image of Jesus closer to us all.

Van Leyden was Dutch, as he was born in the town of Leiden. He was born there in 1494 and worked for some time in Antwerp, but returned and died in his hometown quite young in 1533, when he was about forty years old. He was foremost an engraver and seems to have been an infant prodigy who made already very accomplished engravings at fifteen G9 . However, his works show little growth and little evolution to powerful images. In his ‘Healing of the Blind’ Van Leyden has favoured the small sentimental details of children leading the blind, pointing at the scene, and the slow dispassionate movements of the figures. The gestures are weakly pictured in; they look artificial and sentimental. The painter thus announced a style and a fashion of Dutch painting to come. Yet his picture is neither devoid of interest nor devoid of search for spirituality and for Jesus.

With this picture Lucas van Leyden may have played into the taste of the Dutch new wealthy, some of whom were descended from the poorest artisans, fishermen and farmers. Genre painting became of course only one of many types of the worldly art of the Netherlands, and in this genre also the best genius painters could bring in spirit and moral lessons, which elevated the images above van Leyden’s ‘Healing of the Blind’. The picture thus has historical and antiquary value, but also pure aesthetical, and artistic value.

Van Leyden knew and worked with Jan Gossaert called Mabuse. Van Leyden and Gossaert made a voyage through the Netherlands together G9 . As an artist, Gossaert took the direction and style of pedantic show of skills and he set his figures in grand scenes of Roman architecture. He followed the tastes of settled wealth in metropolitan Antwerp bourgeoisie. Van Leyden had only his considerable skills, with less vision, and he foremost engraved intricate prints with extraordinary detail. He interspersed his work with the beginning of genre oil painting in the North Netherlands, probably equally to satisfy the tastes so different from Antwerp tastes, of the smaller and younger, more local, Dutch growing wealthy class.

We find with van Leyden an example of a painter who started genre painting. This could be one of the proofs that genre painting began in the Netherlands not just because of the fact that Calvinist Preachers did not agree with or only reluctantly approved of religious pictures of the life of Christ. The Calvinists and Van Leyden were clearly in search for the origins of the meaning of the New Testament. Van Leyden positioned the miracle of the healing of the blind in its historical context and thus took distance from the majestic visions of the Jesus of the Renaissance. He brought Jesus very close to everyday life. The evolution to genre had started earlier than the arrival of Calvinism in Holland. One of the actors in that evolution was Lucas van Leyden.

Genre scenes were not limited to the Netherlands. Dutch artists had an important role in spreading the style in various forms in other countries. Thus, Pieter Van Laer (1599-1642) who originated from Haarlem settled in Rome around 1620. This painter had a bodily malformation so he was called Il Bamboccio, which means something like ‘the puppet’. He painted small scenes of Roman common life with many figures. These pictures were animated landscapes of Rome or its surroundings with peasants, artisans at work, thieves and Bohemians. The pictures were sometimes funny, sometimes moralising, always with much to discover in its details. The style became popular in Rome and the artists who practised this style were called Bamboccianti after Van Laer’s nickname. The Bamboccio style was exercised by Sinibaldo Scorza (1589-1631), Lucas Van Wael (1591-1661), Michelangelo Cerquozzi (1602-1660) and Jan Miel (1599-1667). Also Jan Both (ca.161581652) and Jan Asselijn (1610-1652) followed this mode though they gave more importance to landscapes. Later Johannes Lingelbach (1623-1674) and Nicolaes Berchem (1620-1683) continued the style. The French painter Sébastien Bourdon was at the same time in Rome as Van Laer. So were Nicolas Poussin and Claude Gellée, but Bourdon was still very young and in need of earning a living. Bourdon took up the Bamboccio style and brought it back to France when he returned after a stay of five years in Rome. He added his pictures in Paris to the imports from the Netherlands. It is interesting to note how a style that found its source in the character of the Netherlands influenced art in other European countries. Thus, Dutch genre became Bamboccio in Italy and Bamboche in France, whereas several Dutch painters century were called Italianates when they presented popular scenes of Italian life and landscapes with Roman ruins. This cross-pollination of styles should not surprise us however. It happened in art as it did quite naturally in the social and economic life of Europe.

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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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