This painting comes from a panel in the predella of Duccio's Maestà, his famous altarpiece; it would originally have been one part of an enormous collage of images from the Bible. Today, the Maestà has been largely dismantled. Most of the pieces remain in Siena, but some have been distributed far afield. This piece is housed in the National Gallery in London, England.

At the centre of the painting, Jesus stoops slightly to touch the eyes of a blind man. A cluster of twelve men look on from behind Jesus. To the right, the blind man appears a second time, with a fountain at his feet. He is dropping his stick and looking up to the heavens in appreciation. According to the story, Jesus had placed mud in his eyes and told him to wash it off at the fountain of Siloam for his sight to be restored.


The lovingly-detailed figures in this painting are becoming more familiar to our eye as individual characters than earlier figures in the flatter, more austere iconography of Byzantine art. Similarly, the evolution of Gothic art from Byzantine art reaches a transitional stage here as one of the leitmotifs of Byzantine art - the gold leaf background - is being pushed into the upper reaches of the image, crowded out by architecture and a recognizable world for the story. It is possible that the chunky buildings and underdeveloped foreshortening in the background may not have been by Duccio himself, but Duccio takes the credit for the sensitive representation of the men in this painting.

This is particularly apparent in the apostles behind the central pair: each is given unique features (beards, hairstyles, clothing), but most importantly, most of them look like ordinary men of the day (with the possible exception of the two men directly behind Jesus - they may be Peter and Paul, and are rather reminiscent of busts of Plato and Aristotle, although I do not know whether Duccio would have seen such busts). The repetition of the figure of the blind man is not just a narrative technique for telling two stories in one image, but endows him a type of consistent individuality, sustained from one moment to the next. The secular revelation is the developing visibility of the individual and thus both characterization and humanization of the figures.

The painting tells the story of one of Jesus's healings, reminder enough that curing has long been within the domain of religion. When blind, the man's eyes are dull, hollow; they do look as though mud might have been smeared in them. When he turns his face towards the heavens in ecstatic appreciation, his eyes are crisp and bright (although this may have been a function of the restoration). It may have been an economical measure on the part of Duccio that only the blind man is represented twice in the painting while Jesus and the others are there only once; but it also gives him a moment of private devotion to God, as if unseen by the crowd, unwitnessed except by the audience to the Maesta, and it hints that he recognises that he was not healed by Jesus, but by God Himself.

The metaphor of the painting and the story is clear enough: that through Jesus one has a (healing) insight into God. It is interesting, though, to turn to the Bible and to the passages whence this story comes. It begins with a question very familiar to us in a post-Sontagian world: passing the blind man in the street, the disciples ask Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2) On the one hand, Jesus rejects this simple equation between sin and disease. On the other, his answer is that the purpose of the blindness is "that the works of God might be made manifest in him." Broadly, then, the metaphorical meaning of illness (where disability stands for vice or moral failure) gives way to the sociological purpose of illness (that it gives other people the chance to be charitable).

This story asks, then, what sense we make of illness. But in comparing Duccio's scene to the passage, we can see that the answer depends on who is trying to make sense of the illness. In the Bible, the focus is on Jesus's interpretation of the blindness. In the painting, however, it is the blind man who is making sense of this. Whether or not his blindness serves a sociological purpose, he is content to celebrate God and enjoy his newfound sensation. The healer and the healed may have common goals and may even have explanations in common, but the meaning of sickness will always be slightly different.


Primary Source

Sienese Painting, Timothy Hyman (London:Thames and Hudson) 2003