A series of blogs on Rembrandt’s drawings, etchings and paintings of Jesus.

Jesus heals Peter’s wife’s mother

Rembrandt’s images show that he read his bible with an active intelligence, applying what he had learned from the teaching of his church, while allowing his hand to discover more of the humanity of biblical characters, including Jesus. Inevitably as he imagined the body of Jesus, its weight and poise, the movement of arms and legs, he found an understanding of him that is very different from that held by those who work with words. Like me. Faced with Rembrandt’s vision of Jesus, I recognise immediately the poverty of words.

This drawing is of the incident in chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel, which tells of a Sabbath day in Jesus’ ministry. After synagogue, in which Jesus has cast out an evil spirit, he is invited to Peter’s house where his wife’s mother is said to be suffering from a fever. We can guess that she lives there because she is widowed and has come to be with her daughter. She is the older woman, but she is not in charge of the house. As the house would only have one large room, with curtained spaces for sleeping, she would have been within earshot of the houseguests, who were expected to ignore her. But Jesus, breaking all social taboos, enters her area, a man to a woman, and worse, takes her “by the hand”. He is not prepared to let her languish out of sight.

Notice how Rembrandt has Jesus use both hands, with his bare feet firmly poised on the floor, so that he can bend towards her, ready to lift her with strength of his trunk, from her bedding to her feet. Only the action is paused at the first moment of lifting, so that the calm pressure of Jesus’ ‘rescue’ is evident. But also evident is the cooperative reaction of the woman who braces herself to be raised. This is how Jesus deals with the social displacement of this woman: he helps her to her feet and she takes over the role of host. It is also a powerful image of Jesus “rescue” of a sick humanity: he bends towards it in compassion, he lifts it up, the human being responds.

Rembrandt understood of every story in Mark’s gospel was an image of the whole salvation that Jesus worked for humanity. Not just every woman but every man also can put themselves in the posture of the mother-in-law, to feel the inexorable kindness of Jesus prompting them to stand on their feet.

We realise that learning how his muscles worked is knowing something new about Jesus.

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