Miracles and Other Events in Jesus' Public Life: The Iconography

The Samaritan Woman at the Well

In John 4:3-29 Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem when he sits to rest at "Jacob's Well" in Samaria. He asks a Samaritan woman to give him water, and in the subsequent conversation he reveals that the water he provides will lead to eternal life. The commentaries say that his taking a seat is a sign of his role as a teacher, and the images almost always make it clear that he is sitting on a substantial stone (example) or even on a throne. Especially in the earliest images, the vessel that the woman has brought is sometimes a kantharos, a traditional symbol of resurrection (example).

Relevant commentaries can be found online in the Glossa Ordinaria, V, cols. 1984-94, and in the In Joannis Evangelium Expositio attributed to Bede (Migne, CXII, 680-86). Also see online English translations of Augustine's Tractates on the Gospel of John, XV, 6-30 and John Chrysostom's Homilies on the Gospel of John, XXXII.

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The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes

The New Testament records one occasion when Jesus blessed five loaves and two fishes, which then fed five thousand men with twelve baskets left over (Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, and John 6), and another in which seven loaves and "a few" fish fed four thousand with seven baskets left over (Matthew 15 and Mark 8). Many images of these miracles will carefully observe the specified numbers.

The earliest of the images are of three types. In the first, Jesus stands and points a staff at tall wicker baskets of bread on the ground, while a disciple at his side says something in his ear (example). Some images of this type are paired with images of Jesus turning water into wine (example), so the pairs could be construed as referencing the Eucharist.

In the second type, Jesus stands between two disciples and puts his hands on what they have brought, one a basket of bread and the other a dish with one or two fish (example). (In John the bread and fish are offered by a boy, but before the Renaissance the boy appears only rarely.) Some instances of this type have baskets of bread at the feet of the two disciples (example).

In the third type, which is less common, Jesus sits on a throne and receives either the five loaves and two fishes or the twelve baskets. Schiller (I, 166) suggests that the throne references Christ's role as teacher. In her example, a 9th-century ivory, he holds a scroll as a sign of that role. In this Byzantine relief, he sits before the twelve baskets, which for "Jerome" (Migne, XXX, 570) signified the Christian message that the twelve apostles would distribute to the world. (Aside from that possible connection, the exegetes' interpretations of the two events have little bearing on the iconography.)

Starting in the 9th century many images will combine the second of these types with the distribution of the bread by the apostles. In the large canvases of the Renaissance, the blessing of the bread is often visually less impressive than its distribution to a diverse and multitudinous assembly (example).

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Curing the Blind

Jesus cures blind men in all four gospels, but the images of this miracle on paleo-Christian sarcophagi hew closest to Mark 8:35-43, where he cures a single blind man by putting spittle on his eyes. Usually the sarcophagus images will picture someone presenting the blind man to Jesus. The presenter is almost always a man, presumably one of the disciples (example). In the Ezekiel Sarcophagus it is a woman, probably the decedent since she is the central figure but conceivably an allegorical figure of the Church. Jesus places his index and middle fingers on the man's eyes. The man is always pictured at about half the height of Jesus and the disciple.

In some sarcophagus images the blind man grasps a tree trunk (example). I would take this as a reference to his words before his eyesight is fully restored: "I see men as it were trees, walking," although conceivably it is not a trunk but a staff such as a blind man would need to carry. The latter is certainly the case with the mosaic in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, where the man holds a staff with striped markings probably meant to signal his blind condition to others.

After the early centuries the images generally take diverse approaches. Some follow Matthew by picturing a pair of blind men, not just one (example).

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The Paralytics

(Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-14, Luke 5:17-26; John 5:1-9)

In paleo-Christian art Jesus' cure of paralytics was a favored subject, perhaps because each cure narrative leads to Jesus claiming an authority given him by God to forgive sin. Images of the cures thus can support the contemporary orthodoxy regarding Christ's divinity as against alternative theologies that downplayed or denied it.

In John's account Jesus visits the pool in Bethesda, where sometimes an angel comes to stir the water, which then can cure the first person who dives in. At the pool Jesus encounters a man who has been waiting 38 years for a cure because he has no one to carry him over to the pool. He is thus unlike the paralytics in the synoptic gospels, who are brought to Jesus by their friends. No one is in John's acoount but the man and Jesus, who tells him to "Arise, take up your cot and walk" (image). Later the authorities upbraid Jesus for doing this cure on the Sabbath. He replies that he is doing his Father's work – a claim to divinity that makes them even angrier.

The early sarcophagi typically picture Jesus blessing a paralytic, who is already afoot and carrying his cot. Some scholars take this man to be the one in John and relate the images to baptism.1 One of the sarcophagi does place the paralytic next to the scene of Peter miraculously producing water to baptize his jailers, and it features only Jesus and the paralytic. But most examples include a third man, who sometimes appears to be introducing the paralytic to Jesus (example). There is no such man in the Bethesda account, but in Matthew Jesus is in Nazareth when "they brought to him one sick of the palsy lying in a bed." Thus it seems more likely that most sarcophagi are depicting the episode in Matthew.

Mark and Luke have another paralytic cured in Galilee but after Jesus has left Nazareth. The man's friends cannot get him into the crowded room where Jesus is teaching, so they lower him through the roof on his bed or cot. The mosaics at Ravenna and Monreale picture the man being lowered through the roof. Both follow Luke's account, showing the man lowered down "through the tiles" (per tegulas) on his "bed" (lectus). Mark has the man on a "cot" (grabatus); and says nothing about tiles, only that the friends "uncovered" the roof.2

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The Woman with the Flow of Blood

In the synoptic gospels, a woman manages to get through a large crowd to touch the hem of Jesus' cloak, hoping this will cure her chronic hemorrhages. It does. Jesus then asks who has touched him. His disciples cannot answer, but the woman tremblingly falls before him. He then assures her that her faith has saved her.

In the 4th century, the scene is depicted at its most simple, as in this catacombs painting and in a great many sarcophagi, where small panels will picture just Jesus, the woman, and perhaps one disciple. The woman kneels before Jesus and touches the hem of his cloak while he puts his hand on her head (example). The gesture nicely pictures his words in Matthew 9:22, "Be of good heart, daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole"

The Latin for that last phrase, fides tua te salvam fecit covers both physical and spiritual restoration. The phrase appears with only slight variations when Jesus cures the blind men in Mark 10:52 and Luke 18:42. Salvation through faith is also a theme in the accounts of the paralytic whose friends bring him before Jesus (Matthew 9, Mark 2, Luke 5). The man is cured when Jesus "sees their faith" and tells him, "your sins are forgiven." These three miracles – of the woman, the blind man, and the paralytic – are among the most frequently represented on the sarcophagi, usually in some sort of combination with each other. Thus the imagery expounds the theme of salvation through faith in Christ, characterizing the Christian decedents and expressing their hope for eternal life.

In the Greek text that would have been used in the 4th century Jesus wears a "himation," a cloak very similar to the Roman toga, which is what he wears in the images of this period.

The incident of the woman with the flow of blood occurs while Jesus is heading to the home of Jairus, a synagogue official whose daughter is on the point of death. In later centuries many artists choose to add Jairus, the disciples, and the crowd, as in this example from the 13th century. In the 14th, the Limbourg brothers even slip an image of Jairus's daughter into the margin of their miniature.

Some scholars commenting on this episode refer to the woman as the "hemorrhoissa," which just means a woman with a flow of blood. As Mrs. Patmore says, they've swallowed the dictionary.

The narratives are in Matthew 9:20-22, Mark 5:25-29, and Luke 8:43-44. Comments in the Glossa Ordinaria may be found in volume V, columns 177-70, 533-36, and 817-18.

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The Daughter of Jairus

This episode is recounted in Matthew 9:18-26, Mark 5:23-43, and Luke 8:41-56. Jairus is a synagogue official who asks Jesus' help because his daughter is dying. As Jesus is going to the man's house, people come and tell him the girl has died, but he tells them to have faith. He goes to the girl's bed and tells her to arise. She does, and the family is amazed. Some images follow Mark and Luke, which say three disciples went with him into the house; others follow Matthew in saying he went alone.

In the 4th-century sarcophagi Jesus' words, "Girl, arise," are signified by his pointing a staff at her (example). The scene usually includes only Jesus, Jairus, and the girl on the bed, although in this relief the artist has managed to squeeze two disciples into the background. Later images with larger spaces to fill often picture the house, the family, and the disciples (example). They will often express Jesus words, "little girl, arise" by showing him take her by the wrist or the hand.

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The Son of the Widow of Naim

In Luke 7:11-17 as Jesus and his disciples approach the gates of Naim he sees a dead man being carried out for burial, with his widowed mother and a large crowd. He tells the widow, "Do not weep" and touches the bier, whereupon the man sits up and begins to speak. A mosaic at Monreale Cathedral is a good example of medieval images of this episode, showing the city gate, Jesus with his disciples, the man on the bier, the mother, and the crowd. In this and other images Jesus touches not the bier but the man. Some images show the moment before the touch, when Jesus is addressing the woman. Many picture the bearers carrying the bier. (I say "bier," because that is what the images usually have, but the Latin is loculum, which means "casket" or "money bag.")

Schiller's discussion of these images (I, 180-81) references several from the 4th century. All are quite small so they omit the city gate and in one case even the mother, but basically they are like the later types. I have an unfortunately blurry photograph of the version at Pomposa Abbey (14th century), where Jesus does touch the bier. There is also a damaged panel on the "Ludovisi Sarcophagus" that seems to represent either the widow's son or the daughter of Jairus.

The Woman Taken in Adultery

Images of this episode will most often be recognized by Jesus leaning forward with his right finger extended example. In John 8:1-11, the scribes and Pharisees take an adulteress to Jesus and test him by asking what he thinks should be done with her. The Torah prescribes death, but Jesus bends down and writes something on the ground that cause them all to slink away.

The text says Jesus was sitting in the Temple area and teaching the people when the woman was brought before him. The images often have part of the Temple in the background. They sometimes seat Jesus on a throne (example). The throne is inconsistent with the setting and with the nearly unanimous opinion of the commentators that his being seated symbolizes "the humility of his Incarnation" (Catena Aurea, IV, i, 281; Glossa Ordinaria, V, 1152), but it does express his authority as a teacher.

The dramatis personae of these images can be as few as Jesus, the woman, and one accuser (example), or there can be as many as twelve apostles and twelve accusers (example). Many of the images show some of the accusers turning away in embarrassment.

An additional link:

The Temptations in the Desert

In these images the devil is typically shown offering Jesus a stone, which in the gospels he challenges Jesus to change into bread. In the high Middle Ages he is usually pictured as a grotesque (example). Before and after that era he may look like an ordinary man except for some detail that betrays his true identity, such as splayed feet or horns, or even a just a hood pulled up to hide the horns. Tintoretto makes him a strikingly handsome angel surrounded by light like the prelapsarian Lucifer. Most of the images follow Luke in having the devil offer "this stone," singular. But Matthew has "these stones," so a few will picture a field of stones (example).

The stone is the first of the temptations recounted in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13. The other two may be pictured singly or as part of a cycle. In one, the devil has placed Jesus on the pinnacle of the Temple (often pictured as a church) and will dare him to prove his divinity by jumping off. In the other, we see the vision of wealth and power he offers if Jesus will worship him. Perhaps the most famous image of this temptation is this page in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, where the wealth and power that the devil says he controls is represented by the Duke's own palace.

When Jesus refuses the latter offer, angels come to minister to him and the devil exits. Sometimes this conclusion is also pictured. In the Temptation images in St. Mark's, Venice (east end of the south aisle), Satan falls headlong. In this example he is a tiny figure hurrying fearfully toward the right frame of the image while Jesus sits down to a nice dinner. This one excludes him entirely in a scene calculated to express the serenity that follows resistance to temptation.

Miscellaneous Subjects


"Between Christ's Infancy and the Passion," in Ekserdjian, 178-79.


1 Schiller, I, 169; Peppard, 99-107. Tertullian sees the physical cures at the pool as "figures" of the spiritual cure effected by Christian baptism (On Baptism, chapter 5). See Peppard (94-96) for other early commentators' views on the episode. My citations from the gospels are from the Douay-Rheims translation of the Vulgate, but it is hard to know what texts and oral traditions a particular artist of the time was working from.

2 In a note to Luke 5:19 the New American Bible explains that in Palestine roofs were made of straw and clay and so would have had to be "opened up" as in Mark 2:4, but for his wider audience Luke assumes "the Hellenistic Greco-Roman house with tiled roof."