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As Robert Upstone has observed: ‘Uniquely, Turner has here adapted a watercolour of the Alps to include a biblical subject’.1 He notes that the subject is from St John’s Gospel, which relates:
Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered; waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years. When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole? The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me. Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath.2
Turner’s subject appears to relate to the early part of this passage, as Finberg recognised in first assigning the subject.3 Upstone notes that ‘troubling’ here means ‘to stir up the waters to make them thick or muddy. Turner has moved the site from Jerusalem to the Alps. A queue of sick people can be seen, headed by a man with a stick, who leans on a companion.’4
Jan Piggott has used the work as an example of how ‘Turner not only painted biblical subjects: his associational mind made use of biblical allusion and analogy more than is usually acknowledged’,5 as in this ‘late Alpine sketch’, where ‘the healing Bethesda comes to Turner’s mind in looking at a lake’.6 Sam Smiles has developed the last point, considering the ‘religiously inflamed situation in Switzerland in 1844 and 1845’ which pitched secularists against Catholics,7 but thinking it more ‘likely that the image has a personal meaning, triggered by an experience in Switzerland that had reminded [Turner] of the decline of his health as he approached seventy’;8 another possibility is a meditation on the worsening disfigurement of his long-term London housekeeper, Hannah Danby.9
Upstone 1993b, p.54.
See Finberg 1909, II, p.1195.
Upstone 1993b, p.54.
Piggott 2005, p.11.
Ibid., p.15 note 39.
Smiles 2014, p.72.
See Serota 1970, p.141 note 8.
See Joll 1993, p.12.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.270 no.425, pl.431 (colour).
Serota 1970, pp.130–2; this work is listed on p.131, using Finberg’s title.
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