|Carl Bloch's, Christ Healing the Suffering at Bethesda, at BYU's Musuem of Art (MOA)|
In Renaissance Europe, aristocrats were overjoyed at the prospect of visually demonstrating their power and influence through status portraiture. The Catholic Church similarly covered the walls of their cathedrals with images that taught non-literate individuals the insignificance of their existence through the size and grandeur of cathedrals, and instructive works on their walls and windows showing biblical depictions. They were figures of whom few could aspire to become. A few exercised power over the rest. Carl Bloch’s easel stood much later, and the difference in eras was the fundamental difference in approach to the common subject of the individual. In this paper I will critically analyze Carl Bloch’s work, Christ Healing the sick at Bethesda, and will argue its contextual importance in the era in which it was created, stating that the humble and afflicted person could become significant with the romanticist focus on the individual.
Carl Bloch entered the stage with the romantic act climaxing. High art had moved from being only Catholic and aristocratic patronage to increasing middle class involvement. The Baroque and Rococo eras had entertained the wiles of the elite, but themes turned to the mystique of the individual. John Constable “shared the deep and warm love of nature expressed by Wordsworth1,” while Thomas Eakins painted ordinary people in a real, photographic fashion doing things like swimming in a waterhole with friends. The sense of romanticism was heavy as objects in a composition demonstrated leisure, appreciation, and yearning. At times those subjects turned dark, as artists explored the romantic dark-side.
Bloch was a strange contribution to European high art at the time. He was heralded for his brilliant technique, becoming a member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. From there he served positions as a professor and council member at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, a member of Gallery Commissions, and vice director at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. With such success and acclaim Bloch managed to produce pieces of sincere religious worship, a contrast from the increasingly secular focus. His religious works echo the complexity and semiotic usage of High Renaissance artists like da Vinci and contain the low key lighting and technique of Rembrandt.
In Bloch’s work, Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda (1883), one cannot help but be enveloped by the enormity of the work (Fig. 1). By such proportions the viewer must stand far back to not be caught up in the scene. Alphabets that read left to right will tend to read artwork in the same manner. The eye is immediately taken by Christ’s brilliant robe on the left hand side. His robe is strikingly distinct from the general color tones throughout the rest of the composition. His beard and long strands make his appearance relative to the mortal individuals in his proximity, but his face “shine[s] as the sun, and his raiment [is] white as light2.”
The men behind Christ look on as he pulls a cloth unveiling the frail, elderly man who undoubtedly lived a suffered life. Christ gestures authoritatively for him to arise, that the man’s faith had made him whole. The men behind Christ stand in shadows. Much is implied about their character in the adornment of red attire. They observe Christ performing miracles on the Sabbath, and lean back to criticize, devalue, and discredit.
To the veiled man’s right, another afflicted man coasts up against a pillar. The architecture shown is of Italian influence, as Bloch had spent time in the land. His eyes read of social forsakenness and affliction. Perhaps his red cap denotes a different gravity from the men behind Christ. Separate from the slanderous disbelievers, this man has perhaps been grinded on their heels’, and through neglect has suffered the refiner’s fire. His robes resemble Christ’s more than the disbelievers.
Not all the poor and afflicted individuals look on to Christ in humility though. The figures to the right stand at a distance, their eyes diverted elsewhere. A man’s back is turned from Christ. Perhaps in despair he refused to humble his heart. The men behind Christ are engaged in the establishment of their own grandiosity, but that’s not to say that the downtrodden men on the right don’t have similar self-inflation. They worry, they complain, and they scheme, but in their midst the little child teaches the viewer that it is her that we must emulate. She gazes on to Christ with a look of admiration.
My personal response to this piece was powerful because of the stance I interpreted about the nature of man, that of being capable of horrendous atrocities towards one another, but equally endowed with ability towards greatness. The tones do nothing to circumnavigate the viewer from life’s cruel tendencies. It does nothing to hide darkness, or simplify complicated dynamics. Christ’s back is turned to the predators, and his attention is given to those humble enough to receive him. To me this painting tells of a need to displace desires and personal interests to things that will enhance life’s vision.
Christ Healing the sick at Bethesda is an important piece because it combines the sophistication of High Renaissance art, but approaches the individual in a romanticist fashion. Afflicted peasants and the downtrodden mass hold little prominence in European history, but Carl Bloch, the son of a merchant of Copenhagen, Denmark, did much to define their divine value. In this piece he perhaps suggests that it is in a state of gravity that men find reason to look to God, and develop their God-given potentials. His is a message of hope to all, especially those termed lesser in the world.
1. “Carl Bloch: The Master’s Hand,” Carl Bloch: The Master’s Hand, http://carlbloch.byu.edu/works.php (accessed February 28, 2011).
2. Cunningham, Lawrence S. and Reich, John J., Cultures and Values: A Survey of the Humanities (Cenagie Learning, 2009), 449.
3. “Healing at the Pool of Bethesda,” CarlBloch.com, http://www.carlbloch.com/php/artwork.php?artwork=711 (accessed February 27, 2011).
4. St. Matthew. “The Gospel According to St. Matthew of The Holy Bible, trans. King James (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1979), 1,216.
5. Sacred Destinations, “Canturbury Cathedral Stained Glass,” Sacred Destination.com,
http://www.sacred-destinations.com/england/canterbury-cathedral-stained-glass-windows (accessed February 28, 2011).