This monumental canvas by Karel Dujardin depicts a scene from the New Testament. It tells how Paul and his companion Barnabas get into trouble on their mission to Lystra, a city in now modern Turkey. A cripple hearing Paul preach suddenly leaps up and walks. Greeks witnessing the miracle prepare to worship the apostles as gods. Horrified, Paul and Barnabas tear their clothes and exclaim mortal men like themselves can’t heal; only faith in the Lord can. Hostile local Jews stone them nevertheless.
The Lystra story became especially popular in the art of the Dutch Republic. Ideologically, it served as protestant propaganda supporting anti-idolatry doctrines. Pictorially, painters indulged in dramatic and densely populated scenes. Standard elements were rhetoric duels between Paul and pagan priests, richly arrayed processions, sacrificial animals and classical architecture.
Lystra’s popularity was already waning when Karel Dujardin found a new angle in 1663. His smooth post-1650 classicist style left the realism of his predecessors behind. In an original approach, he zoomed in on a majestic Paul, dressed in brown and red. While he prepares to cure the half naked cripple at his feet, a kneeling woman clutching at the saint’s hem hopes to get her share of the divine grace.
Over Paul’s right shoulder the outline of Barnabas’ head is still vaguely visible. Dujardin painted it over for reasons unknown; perhaps religious puritanism, as the Bible attributes the miracle to Paul only. A more down-to-earth explanation is also possible. The canvas decorated the parlor of a rich Amsterdam textile merchant who may have used the work to his own interest by pointing out to his guests the superiority of a well-dressed man.
(This week’s contribution by friend and fellow historian @Jos Hanou)