Faith through Art: Painting contemplates miracles of St. Peter
By Norman Farmer
“Cure the sick, raise the dead” (Mt 10:8). “Come! Behold the deeds of the Lord, the astounding things he has wrought on earth” (Ps 46:9).
These words are not literally inscribed upon the masterpiece by Massolino of Panicale (c.1383 – 1447) in The Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, Italy. But they do declare what this painting is really about in its serial depictions of St. Peter healing the crippled beggar at the door of the Temple and then raising Tabitha from death (both found in Acts), the first miracles worked by anyone other than Christ himself.
In the intense realism of this amazing painting with its precisely calibrated perspective, its subtle coloration, and its compelling design, Masolino works an artistic miracle in his own right by representing the everyday world of ordinary things in such a way that the miraculous inbreaking of the invisible divine gradually is readily visible to the eyes of our hearts.
At a glance we are on a quite ordinary 14th century urban street. Beyond is a spacious, sun-lit piazza where, in the middle distance, a woman walks with a child, another enters a door, while a third stands between them and a man far right. Further back, two old men sun themselves in front of a building, while in the mid-foreground, two elegant gentlemen, oblivious to everything around them, stroll nonchalantly in animated conversation. Handsome houses overlook the piazza, some with open windows, others shuttered or with curtains, some even with laundry drying in the mid-afternoon sun.
Things are not so tranquil, however, on our street where we are about to pass between two emotion-charged events. On the left a crippled beggar solicits alms from two men who stare with uncommon intensity into his eyes. One even reaches out an empty hand to the beggar, who clearly wants something of substance. On our right that same man, shoeless and wrapped in a yellow cloak, and under the watchful, skeptical eye of another, solemnly addresses a group in varying degrees of unrest. The man in blue gestures suspiciously, glaring fearfully; behind him a bearded elder drops his head in despair, while the man in the red cloak registers fearful amazement. Before them a pale woman in grave clothes sits upright on a pallet as two other women numbly look on and the man in the yellow cloak stares at her much as he stared at the crippled beggar.
By now, we realize that the street we are following toward the realm of natural, social, and domestic commonplaces – the order of things that we hold to be the “realities” of life – is taking us instead between the realities of sickness and death, precisely the realm where “the deeds of the Lord, the astounding things he has wrought on earth,” occur.
Day-by-day throughout the Octave of Easter and the following weeks, the church reads the miracle stories of Peter in Acts alongside the stories of Jesus’ miraculous appearances in the Gospels. Masolino adds a visual and aesthetic dimension to those readings, inviting us to see pleasurably, to remember joyfully, to re-imagine vigorously, and then to see with the eyes of our hearts the miraculous inbreaking of the Holy Spirit that St. John Chrysostom called “the proof of the resurrection.”
On cue, the Office of Readings for Saturday in the third week of Easter adds these reflections by St. Cyril of Alexandria: “When the life-giving word of God dwelt in human flesh, he changed it into that good thing which is distinctively his, namely, life; and by being wholly united to the flesh in a way beyond our comprehension, he gave it the life-giving power which he has by his very nature. Therefore, the body of Christ gives life to those who receive it. Its presence in mortal men expels death and drives away corruption because it contains within itself in his entirety the word who totally abolishes corruption.” Now we know why, in healing the cripple, Peter and John should fix their gaze so intently on him, saying, “Look at us.”
In “The Difference God Makes,” Cardinal Francis George observes that today many face a “crisis of belief in the all-powerful God…, a loss of the conviction that spirit has power.” Does God, they wonder, really heal the sick and raise the dead? In this image of the divine at work, Masolino depicts an emphatic “Yes!” And along that trail of cobblestones, “rocks” that lead from the miracles Peter works in the name of Christ and into the public square, we find visible expression of the Psalmist’s invitation: “Come, let us sing joyfully to the Lord; cry out to the rock of our Salvation” (Ps 95:1).