It’s hard to miss when walking the halls of Pennsylvania Hospital, but what may not be readily apparent is the deep history behind “Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple,” the enormous painting by Benjamin West hanging in the hospital’s Gallery Pavilion.
West was born in 1738 in nearby Springfield, Pa., and began painting here before moving to Italy to master his craft.
West completed “Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple” in 1811 as a gift for the hospital, but English royalty took a liking to it before it was shipped over. Needing the money after a long illness, West sold it to the Prince Regent for what was a record sum at the time for a work of art and promised Pennsylvania Hospital a second version of the original.
True to his word, he worked diligently and the second “Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple” was completed in 1815. It looks exactly like the one that was sold to the Prince Regent, but with one addition. At the time, Pennsylvania Hospital was at the front of the pack when it came to treating mental illness, so West added a mentally ill man and his caretaker.
The painting was such a big deal that a new structure was built to house it, aptly named the Picture House, and the painting is estimated to have raised $15,000 while housed there. Among the visitors was Charles Dickens himself, who was said to be very impressed with Pennsylvania Hospital, but less so with Philadelphia.
The painting is out of the Picture House now and hangs front and center in the Gallery Pavilion, between the historic Pine Building and more modern parts of the hospital. However, after years on display, the painting is in need of another conservation treatment. Previous treatments addressed a bulge in the left bottom of the painting, but those treatments have not solved the problem. Stacey Peeples, Pennsylvania Hospital’s Curator- Lead Archivist, said the canvas has been stretched several times, and a new work plan is now in need of implementation.
Peeples’ said the best option now is to “back” the painting, which means literally giving the hung canvas a hard backing to give it long term support. Fundraising efforts have proved helpful, but they are still a little short of having enough to go through with the conservation, which includes the construction of a small room right inside the gallery area.
The painting has its own fire protection, a metal wall that can be lowered and raised manually in the case of disaster. Peeples’ said it’s been lowered just two times in her 15 years here, once following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Take a look up next time you’re walking through the Gallery Pavilion, pause and take a look at Benjamin West’s “Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple.” We’re lucky to have it on our wall.