Monday, October 19, 2015

Bartimaeus...the Entertainer?

Jesus heals blind men in more than one gospel and more than one story in Christian scripture. For Proper 25B/Ordinary 30B/Pentecost 22 the story is that of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar outside Jericho who gains Jesus' attention in order to be healed and then follows Jesus on the way (Mark 10:46-52).

The author of the text tells us that Bartimaeus sits by the roadside, but that is as far as the details go. Italian artist Domenico Fiasella (called Il Sarzano) has given Bartimaeus a sort of occupation that would have been familiar in his own time. Now in the collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the painting called "Christ Healing the Blind" shows Jesus in the familiar red and blue tunic and cloak, laying his hand over the eyes of the blind man. From his fingertips comes...nothing. But we have faith that the man's sight will be restored.
Domenico Fiasella. Christ Healing the Blind. Oil on canvas. 1615. Sarasota, FL: John and Mable
 Ringling Museum of Art. http://ringlingdocents.org/fiasella1.htm
What is especially interesting is that Fiasella has made Bartimaeus a violinist, hanging the fiddle from the belt of his tunic. In Fiasella's day many blind persons had to beg for a living and having the ability to play a musical instrument like a violin or guitar might have made a significant difference in their ability to sustain life.

The theme of the blind musician is a reasonably common theme in art. John Singer Sargent, Georges de la Tour and Ben Shahn among other artists, have explored this theme in their paintings. The theme may have some root in the legend of St. Cecelia, patron saint of musicians. The name Cecilia may come from the Latin caecus (meaning blind), so Cecilia is also patron saint of the blind. There is no evidence that she herself was blind, but the confluence of words and names and meanings has sorted itself out along these lines.

Blindness has traditionally been the occasion to talk about spiritual insight (or its lack), heavenly reward/earthly punishment, the ability of divine healing to override the things of earth and the salvation of humans and humanity. Sight, light and salvation are often associated with these stories. The addition of music to the composition is an interesting one. Oftentimes we think of musicians being "lost in their music" - so caught up in the moment that they lose awareness of the world around them. This might be doubly true of blind musicians. But here the blind man is not so caught up in his music that he has missed Christ walking by. The violin that surely has made music in the past may make music in the future, but in this moment it hangs otherwise unattended at the man's waist. This blind man, whether he is Bartimaeus or another, is not distracted by his own activity or any other need. He is rather intently focused on Christ who can and will change his world.

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