Again Jesus left the district of Tyre
and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee,
into the district of the Decapolis.
And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment
and begged him to lay his hand on him.
He took him off by himself away from the crowd.
He put his finger into the man’s ears
and, spitting, touched his tongue;
then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him,
“Ephphatha!”— that is, “Be opened!” —
And immediately the man’s ears were opened,
his speech impediment was removed,
and he spoke plainly.
He ordered them not to tell anyone.
But the more he ordered them not to,
the more they proclaimed it.
They were exceedingly astonished and they said,
“He has done all things well.
He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
Bartholomeus BREENBERGH, Jesus Healing a Deaf Mute, 1635, Louvre, Paris
From the Louvre website:
The healing of the deaf and dumb man (not the blind man as has sometimes been suggested) refers to the story in St. Mark’s Gospel, but here it is situated in a wider context and set against a background of ancient Roman ruins-references that were “de rigueur” for art lovers of the time.
A miraculous healing
Attracted by the supernatural scene, a group of people has gathered before the ancient ruins. Jesus is performing one of his miracles, probably the healing of the deaf and dumb man. Bartholomeus Breenbergh (1599-1657) depicts the scene at the very moment of the miracle, as recounted in St. Mark’s Gospel: “They brought to him a man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, with the request that he would lay his hand on him. He took the man aside, away from the crowd, put his fingers into his ears, spat, and touched his tongue. Then, looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ which means ‘Be opened.’ With that his ears were opened, and at the same time the impediment was removed and he spoke plainly” (7:32-35).
Like many contemporary artists, Breenbergh went to Italy, and particularly to Rome, the city where classical antiquity was best represented. He brought back numerous drawings, which would form a range of backgrounds for most of his works. In this picture, the distant ruins overrun with vegetation combine various motifs derived from his Italian studies. The collection of buildings is a slightly modified reprise of the ruins of the Villa of Maecenas at Tivoli, which he had drawn in 1627, while the detail of the coffered vault seen under the main archway is thought to have been inspired by the Basilica of Constantine, one of the most important monuments in the Roman Forum. Breenbergh has thus set this scene from Christian antiquity against a picturesque background which accords very well with the taste for things Italian of his own day.
The taste for narrative rediscovered
Although the principal scene is smaller in scale than the family and beggar in the foreground, Breenbergh guides the gaze of the onlooker by the interplay of light. The alternation of light and dark areas hollows out the space and gives prominence to the healing of the deaf and dumb man by literally putting him under the spotlight. The bright gap in the stormy sky, which explains these various effects of light, is rendered with great sensitivity to atmosphere. In his previous compositions, Breenbergh had displayed a marked preference for landscape over figure painting, characterized by a pre-classical style close to that of Paul Bril (1554-1626). But here there is a fullness to the figures, and exotic touches (the little page with a feather in his headdress walking a dog) are combined with great expressiveness (the very Mannerist, contorted attitude of the beggar on crutches). This renewed taste for pictorial narrative was part of a general movement in Dutch art toward painting historical scenes, also evident in the work of Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) and Rembrandt (1606-1669).
– Le Siècle de Rembrandt : tableaux hollandais des collections publiques françaises, catalogue d’exposition, Musée du Petit-Palais, Édition de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 1970, p. 29.