The Triptych with the Miracles of Christ at the National Gallery of Victoria
This beautiful triptych whose home is now the National Gallery of Victoria was produced in the last quarter, probably in the last decade, of the 15th Century in Flanders. The Gallery has generously made an image of this triptych available for use on RESource as a visual introduction to the Miracles of Jesus. The triptych itself is being loaned back to Belgium for a period but is usually on display at the NGV in the Gallery of European Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts, 14th-16th Century. It is well worth a visit when it returns to Melbourne.
Though the panels in the NGV triptych harmonise, they were painted in different studios by artists working under a Master. Some art experts have suggested that it is a product of two main guiding hands the Master of Princely Portraits (Cana) and the Master of The Legend of St Catherine (the Loaves and Fishes and the Raising of Lazarus). Just from an art point of view, can you pick which of the panels is thought to be slightly different from the other two?
As well as depicting three key miracles of Jesus, the pictures present a vivid insight into Flemish life. However RESource’s main interest is in the actual subject matter of the triptych and particularly:
• what these pictures tell us about what the artists believed and felt about the miracles
• how people made meaning from the miracles the artists depicted.
Reading the Miracles Triptych
The triptych would originally have been part of the altar piece (or backdrop) to a church or chapel altar at which the Eucharist was celebrated. The Eucharist, also called the Mass is the remembrance and making present of the Paschal Mystery, and the feeding of the people on bread and wine, the sacramental Body and Blood of Jesus. As the people gathered at the altar to celebrate this mystery they would be gazing at the pictures on the triptych making connections between what they saw there: Jesus feeding the people, the Mass they were celebrating and their own faith and hope being fed in Christ.
Which miracles are depicted?
Before looking at the panels in detail, brainstorm reasons why the Triptych might depict these three particular miracles.
What would a 21st Century Australian Triptych of the Miracles of Jesus look like?
After exploring the panels, which depict these miracles of Jesus in a 15th Century Flemish context, spend sometime suggesting how each miracle could be depicted in a 21st Century setting.
Could some of the art students in the class come up with sketches/cartoons which express the insights and suggestions of the whole class?
The Australian poet Peter Steele SJ wrote a poem inspired by the centre panel of the triptych. Have a try at one yourself.
Can you contribute to the Miracles unit?
The aim of this unit is to discuss the miracles of Jesus by addressing some of the questions people commonly ask about them. If you or your students have any questions or insights, let us know (click on the Contact Us button at the bottom of any page) and we can expand this section of RESource together.
What are miracles?
Miracles are generally understood as extraordinary occurrences that defy all known human or natural forces and are attributed to divine action. Because they acknowledge that the power and love of God is without limit, Christians assert the possibility of miracles. They open themselves to an effort to understand the miracles of Jesus and their significance. The article on Meetings with Jesus -coming to know Jesus through the stories in the bible is well worth the read.
As a preliminary exercise, survey your class on their beliefs about the meaning of the miracles recorded in the gospels:
- Miracles have no meaning because they are impossible?
- Miracles prove Jesus was God?
- Miracles are symbolic actions of Jesus revealing God’s reign?
- Miracles were common among superstitious people?
- Miracles need to be related to our lives to have meaning?
Read an article by Irish Jesuits on the Miracles of Jesus to hear their response to these basic questions about the Miracles of Jesus.
A Christian online dictionary gives a fuller definition of the word miracle as it has been generally understood in the history of Christianity and also explains some of the New Testament words used to describe the miracles of Jesus: ‘signs’, ‘wonders’, ‘works’ and ‘mighty works’.
- What light do these terms cast on the possible meaning of Jesus’ miracles?
What philosophers think about miracles
Teachers and senior students might be interested in looking at a philosophical understanding of miracles. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy also presents an article on miracles while a site from Stanford traces Western thought on the subject. C.S. Lewis’s thinking on miracles may also be of interest.
A Jewish Angle
An intriguing response from a Jewish perspective describes ‘two frequencies of Divine revelation in this world: constant and occasional. The constant is known as nature, the occasional as miracles’.
What Augustine and Thomas Aquinas thought
Two key theologians of the Church who have reflected on the meaning of miracles are St Augustine of Hippowhose thinking on miracles has echoes of the Jewish understanding just mentioned and St Thomas Aquinas.
St Augustine thought that if a miracle was understood to mean something “contrary to the divinely established and universal order of things,” then clearly God can no more act in this way than He can act against Himself. However, he adds: “There is no impropriety in saying that God does something against nature when it is contrary to what we know of nature. For we give the name ‘nature’ to the usual and known course of nature; and whatever God does contrary to this, we call ‘prodigies’ or ‘miracles.’”(Contra Faustum, xxvi.3)
- Could you express this insight of Augustine in your own words?
St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica Part III set out objections to the idea of the miracles in the gospels then answered them systematically and logically. There is no need to spend ages looking at the Summa but it is notable that St Thomas anticipates many of the objections still being raised about the miracles of Jesus and gives a considered response to them.
- What do you make of St Thomas’s responses to the objections to the miracles of Jesus?
A Present Day View
Some present day theologians don’t see Jesus’ miracles as contradicting nature but as a restoration of what God truly intended nature to be. The Genesis account of creation provides an image of how nature is intended to be. Creation/nature is pronounced to be ‘very good’. Illness, pain, hunger, and death, all aspects of what we take to be nature are actually deviations from God’s original plan. Jesus’ miracles because they restore health and life reaffirm God’s original intention for creation. ‘The miracles of Christ make visible the fulfillment of the promised redemption: the coming of the kingdom of God. They make visible the restoration of the creation, and thus the all-embracing and redemptive significance of the kingdom’. (C. Gousmett)
Fr Denis Edwards in his article Miracles and the Laws of Nature briefly summarises not only St Thomas Aquinas’ view but also more modern theologians, Karl Rahner among them. Rahner, drawing on St Thomas contests the idea of miracles ‘violating’ the laws of nature and suggests that “the natural world, with its processes and laws, is created by God as part of the process of God’s self-bestowal to the world. It is not that God creates a world that is other from God so that, in order to communicate, God needs to intervene in the world from time to time. Rather the natural world, with its processes and laws, exists within God’s one act of self-bestowal. The laws of nature are part of God’s own self-giving’.
What is the significance of the miracles?
Most of the miracles of Jesus are significant on many levels
• They are significant on a Christological level because they show us much about Jesus Christ, his nature and identity, his wisdom, power, compassion, inclusivity, his freedom from constraint and how he does among the people what ‘only God can do’.
• They are significant in a typological way, in that they draw comparisons between Jesus and his actions and people and events of the Old Testament and invite us to do the same. For example, the account of the feeding of the crowds mentioned in each of the gospels parallels the miraculous feedings mentioned in the books of Exodus and Kings
• They are eschatological, in that they present Jesus as the fulfilment of the prophecies and longing for the Messiah. For example Jesus’ reply to John the Baptist’s question about whether he was the long-expected One, is an answer based on the characteristics of the Messianic era described in Isaiah 35.
• They are symbolic, in that they use substances, like bread, water, wine, spittle etc., human conditions like hunger, blindness, paralysis, etc. human rituals like meals and marriage and even significant numbers, 12, 5, 5000 to point to larger meanings.
• They have sacramental significance in the way they relate to the actions of the Church later known as sacraments, Baptism, Eucharist, Healing, Reconciliation. The sacraments, ‘signs and wonders’ of a different order, make the miracles of Jesus’ cleansing, healing, feeding and reconciling available to people throughout all time and space.
A couple of pages extracted from Walter Kasper’s book ‘Jesus the Christ’ entitled ‘The Theological Significance of the Miracles’ is very helpful for an understanding of the NT miracles.
‘Miracles can only be understood against the background of the basic human hope for something totally different and totally new, for the coming of a new and reconciled world. It is to this hope in man, and not to his observing and recording intellect that the miracles speak.’
But aren’t miracles impossible?
For some people, the answer is ‘Yes! Miracles are impossible.’
They share a particular world view, originating in the Enlightenment that developed in Europe in the 18th Century which prizes the scientific and rational explanation of life and experience over all other explanations and excludes the possibility of miracles.
Does everything have a rational explanation?
We in the western world have largely inherited this view of reality. So we tend to say that if we cannot explain something rationally it cannot have happened. However, when you come to think of it, everyone’s lives are full of experiences which are not adequately explained rationally. Why should we be moved by music, beauty, stories, kindness, love, terror? But indeed we are. And what about imagination, intuition, creativity?
Accepting one particular explanation of how things happen to the exclusion of all other interpretations closes off other responses that may also be true and life-giving. It is also in its own way unscientific. Remaining open to possibilities never dreamt of is surely one of the defining characteristics of human knowledge.
The following brief summary of how the understanding of the word ‘miracle’ developed from the time of the gospel writers to the present time is adapted from an excerpt from Peter Harrison’s “Miracles, Early Modern Science, and Rational Religion“. It is useful article because it shows how the concept of a ‘miracle’ has changed over time and particularly how the notion of an opposition between what is natural and supernatural (which would have been inconceivable to a thinker like St Augustine) has evolved. He writes:
“David Hume’s classic understanding of “miracle” as a contravention of the laws of nature is often assumed to have represented the Christian understanding of miraculous phenomena from New Testament times to the present but ….
- There is little consistency in the manner in which miracles are represented in the Gospels. Those events typically identified as miracles are variously described as “signs” (semeia), “wonders” (terata), “mighty works” (dunameis), and, on occasion, simply “works” (erga). The Gospels were not working with a formal conception of “miracle”–at least not in David Hume’s sense of a “contravention of the laws of nature,” familiar to modern readers.
- Neither is there a consistent position on the role of these events as evidence about Jesus. In the synoptic Gospels–Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus performs miracles on account of the faith of his audience. In John’s Gospel, however, it is the performance of miracles that elicits faith.
- Even in the fourth Gospel, moreover, the role of miracles as signs of Christ’s divinity is not straightforward. Thus those who demand a miracle are criticised by Jesus: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”
- Signs and wonders do not provide unambiguous evidence of the sanctity of the miracle worker or of the truth of their teachings. Accordingly, the faithful were warned (in the synoptic Gospels at least) that “false Christs and false prophets will rise and show signs and wonders [in order] to deceive.”
- The subsequent history of the word “miracle” saw the formalization of the rather imprecise first century terms “signs,” “wonders,” “works,” and their evolution into the more exact medieval categories “marvels,” “portents,” “preternatural” events, and “miracles.”
- This was followed by the eventual emergence in the early modern period of a simple dichotomy (opposition) between the natural and supernatural along with the familiar notion of miracles as violations of the laws of nature.
So did the miracles recorded in the New Testament really happen?
The gospels are accounts of the life and work of Jesus written to in order to share the church’s faith in him. Especially the synoptic gospels, Matthew Mark and Luke, are full of stories of the miracles Jesus worked among the people as well as with his parables, other teaching and accounts of his death and resurrection.
How likely are they to be true?
The miracle stories are based on oral accounts of Jesus treasured by the first Christian communities and so must reflect something of peoples’ actual experiences of Jesus. There is unanimous agreement, within the gospel accounts, on the style of Jesus’ miracles, the purpose of them and the responses of the people to him. On the other hand first century Christians would not have equated ‘truth’ with ‘factuality’ as we tend to do but have understood the Miracles (as) Signs of God’s Presence and expressions of God’s mercy and love.
Criteria of Authenticity
Another lengthy and quite detailed article details scholarly investigations of the miracle stories outlining five criteria for authenticity which they then apply to the miracle texts.
The healing miracles of Jesus are very likely to be based in direct memories and experiences of his ministry. The nature miracles may have more theological origins, that is they are told to express a truth about Jesus and his salvific role. The BBC site Miracles of Jesus features an investigation of Jesus’ miracles showing how they reveal him as the one who replicates and exceeds the actions of Elijah, Moses and Joshua, great figures of the Old Testament revelation.
What do historians make of the miracle stories?
According to biblical scholar Fr. John Meier, “The proper stance of a historian is, ‘I neither claim beforehand that miracles are possible, nor do I claim beforehand they are not possible.’” Meier finds that Jesus’ performance of extraordinary deeds deemed miracles is supported most impressively by the criteria of multiple attestation and the coherence of Jesus’ deeds with his teaching and mission. Multiple attestation means a tradition is found in all or most of the various sources lying behind the Gospel. It indicates that a particular conviction is deeply embedded in the earliest traditions of the early church.
Historically speaking, it is not possible to go back to the actual events that initiated the miracle stories. But whatever the originating events were, they had an impact that, coupled with his teaching, made people place their faith in Jesus. This faith survived Jesus’ death and was given new impetus through the first disciples’ profound experience of the Risen Christ alive among them. The death and resurrection of Jesus became the central mystery and miracle of Christianity.
What is the Christian response to the gospel miracles?
While sceptics reject the possibility of miracles, Christians remain in an attitude of faith before the gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracles. What they believe in is not a carefully worked out system which explains everything in measurable, quantifiable terms, but a revelation, in and through the person of Jesus, of the mystery of God who is at the heart of everything including the human heart.
This attitude of faith is perfectly consistent with reasonable and rational thought but it does not claim that if certain events are not explicable to human reason they cannot have taken place.
For Christians, human reason works with faith but is not the ultimate arbitrator of what is true. The revelation of Christ in the gospels invites us to ponder the miracles of Jesus, study them, interpret them, discern their essential truth and resist dismissal of them as ‘unbelievable’.
Fr Gerard Hall in his Article on the Parables and Miracles of Jesus takes time to discuss the relationship of faith and science and the historicity of the miracles (Scroll down through the article to the section on miracles which flows out of the discussion on the teaching and meaning of the parables).
‘Belief in miracles is not belief in prodigies but trust in God’s power and providence. The real object of this belief is not various extraordinary phenomena but God. What Jesus’ miracles are ultimately saying is that in Jesus, God was carrying out his plan and that God acted in him for the salvation of humankind and the world.’ (from Walter Kasper’s Jesus the Christ pg 98).
What role do the miracles play in the gospels?
Especially in the Synoptic gospels, narratives of Jesus’ miracles constitute a substantial proportion of the texts. For example, miracle stories account for 30% of the gospel of the Gospel of Mark.
The gospel miracles are described in a very straightforward unsensational way and form an integral part of Jesus ministry. No miracle of Jesus is performed as a stunt, nor to impress. In fact Jesus, in the account of the temptations in the desert, explicitly rejects ‘wonder-working’ and also speaks against the desire for signs as a pre-requisite for faith.
All of the miracles of healing, exorcism and restoration illustrate and implement the mission of Jesus described in Luke 4.18. in which the words of Isaiah concerning the Messiah are quoted:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.’
The nature miracles function like enacted parables of the Kingdom. Their themes
• the overcoming of fear and chaos (walking on water),
• celebration (Cana),
• abundance (feeding of the multitudes/miraculous draught of fish)
are the very themes that characterises the reign of God.
The gospel miracles exemplify the teaching of Jesus and point to him as the Messiah long awaited by Israel.
For further reading see Craig Blomberg’s article The Miracles as Parables which explores six of the miracles, including possibly the most baffling of all, Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree, showing how they function as parallels to Jesus’ parables.
What is the meaning of the miracles for us?
Often the New Testament miracles are responded to in rather a polarised way. Either they are admired and marvelled at by believers as discrete, once off, supernatural events performed by Jesus or they are dismissed by unbelievers as completely incredible. Neither of these responses actually takes the respondent very far.
Augustine’s insight into the meaning of the miracles
St. Augustine in the 4th century suggested another way of approaching the gospel miracles:
“Let us ask the miracles themselves what they tell us about Christ, for they have a tongue of their own, if it can only be understood. Because Christ is the Word of God, all the acts of the Word become words to us. The miracle which we admire on the outside also has something inside which must be understood.
If we see a piece of beautiful handwriting, we are not satisfied simply to note that the letters are formed evenly, equally and elegantly; we also want to know the meaning the letters convey.
In the same way a miracle is not …. something merely to look at and admire, and to be left at that. It is much more like a piece of writing which we must learn to read and understand.”(cf. St Augustine Sermon 48,1,3 )
What Augustine is saying here is that no matter how impressive a miracle is, unless we can understand what it is really about – its inner meaning – we just won’t get it and it will remain at fairytale level.
The point of the miracles
The miracles of the New Testament are not just about sick people getting better (what about all those who didn’t get better?) dead people coming alive (why didn’t Jesus raise everyone?) or Jesus doing tricks at Cana or on Lake Galilee, they are meant to show something about Jesus, about God and God’s reign, about the human condition, about human hope and its fulfilment.
“All the Gospel miracles of Jesus, healing the blind and deaf are to be interpreted in terms of this theology of revelation: their point is not medical but spiritual and theological. Whatever history may lie behind the stories of individual healings, their meaning and importance in the evangelists’ mind is a universal, symbolic one”. (John, J. The Meaning in the Miracles)
It is the meaning not the event that continues to touch lives
It is learning to understand the meaning of the miracles that is significant for us because it is the meaning not the miraculous event itself that relates through faith to our own lives and experience. What is it to us if Jesus cured blind Bartimaeus unless we recognise in Bartimaeus our own blindness and can join him in calling out to Jesus for help? What is it to us if Jesus once fed 5000 people on a mountainside if we do not recognise that he feeds us through the Eucharist which is a participation in the feast of God’s reign which is ‘already but not yet’?
The miracles of Jesus show us that there is a way of knowing which involves both mind and body, heart and soul, human imagination and intuition, faith and doubt, in short, the whole self. This way of knowing suggests a different starting point for responding to the miracle stories than sterile argument about whether this or that event really happened. Approaching the New Testament miracles as Augustine suggests, in order to learn and understand them, is the only useful way forward.