Artist: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
Artist dates: 1617 – 1682
Date made: 1667-70
Medium and support: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 237 x 261 cm
Acquisition credit: Presented through The Art Fund in memory of W. Graham Robertson, 1950
Inventory number: NG5931
Location in Gallery: Room 30
The Spanish painter, Bartolome Esteban Murillo, was baptized on January 1, 1618 in Seville, Spain. His parents died when he was 10 years old and he was adopted into his uncle’s family and not long after, he was apprenticed to the painter Juan de Castillo. At a young age Murillo began painting sargas, cheap paintings on rough canvas that would be sold at local fairs and sometimes shipped to America by traders. It was his sargas that got people’s attention and so he was hired by the Franciscan monastery in Seville to paint a series of 11 paintings of the lives of the Franciscan saints. Murillo rarely dated his works, but it is estimated that he worked on the Franciscan paintings from 1642 – 1646. Sometime after his completion of the Franciscan paintings, Murillo went to Madrid where he studied under the king’s painter, Diego Rodriguez de Sylva y Velasquez, and had the privilege of studying the royal art collections which included paintings by Van Dyck and Titian.
In February of 1645 Murillo Married Beatrice Sotomajor-i-Cabrera. Not long after they married, Beatrice bore their first daughter, Maria, who died as a child. In this period of his life, Murillo painted a lot of “Madonnas”, mostly on small canvases. They were intended for home altars. Murillo gained widespread European fame thanks to his sentimental paintings of children.
In 1664, Murillo’s wife died and he moved his family to into the Convent of the Capuchins. It is after this that he painted his most famous religious works for religious orders such as the Capuchins, the Venerable Sacerdotes, and the brotherhood of the hospital of the Caridad, which dedicated its charitable efforts towards the poor and the sick of Seville, and of which Murillo was a member. In 1667 Murillo was commissioned by the Caridad hospital for a painting that was intended to be placed in the dining hall of the Caridad hospital.
At a height of approximately 8 feet, Christ Healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda commands attention from its audience. Its rich colors, dramatic tone, and subject matter show that Murillo was a true baroque painter.
The Baroque age was the last true age of faith. The Catholic Church had just restored its power, the Council of Trent had reformed the corruption in the church, plus Inquisition had quieted any opposition to the Catholic Church. The Church had taken the reins in art and required it to be clear in its message and subject.
Murillo followed all of these guidelines in his interpretation of John 5. Baroque art was largely about action. In Christ Healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda we see anguish and frustration on the paralytic man’s face as he explains to Jesus that he has sat at the pool for nearly 40 years and has never been able to get to the pool first. Upon observing the paralytic’s condition, it is evident that he has basically opted to live at the pool of Bethesda and this is evident by the few possessions next to his bed. He has a cane, a plate, and a pitcher: very basic necessities. We also see Jesus extending his hand to the man instructing him to get up and walk. Around them there are the disciples and also a lot of other sickly and invalid people waiting for their chance to be the first ones into the pool upon the angel’s visit. Clearly, there is a lot of pain and suffering at the pool of Bethesda.
Upon further study of the piece, we can see the angel that turns the water into a healing pool. The angel is far away, disconnected, and not interacting with the people. Jesus on the other hand is among the people, speaking to them, and healing them. Jesus’ message is simple: “follow me and be healed.” This painting would have been particularly affective in the dining hall of the Caridad hospital because the audience would have been the poor and the sick. All they needed to do was put their faith in Jesus, who was among them, as opposed to a superstition, like the angel at the pool of Bethesda.
Murillo’s interpretation allows for a timeless and universal message: Christ is here to heal you. Follow Him instead of worldly superstitions and you will be healed.