Images of Leprosy: Disease, Religion, and Politics in European Art (Early Modern Studies)
Christine M. Boeckl
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From biblical times to the onset of the Black Death in the fourteenth century, leprosy was considered the worst human affliction, both medically and socially. Only fifty years ago, leprosy, or Hansen s disease, was an incurable infectious illness, and still remains a grave global concern. Recently, leprosy has generated attention in scholarly fields from medical science to the visual arts. This interdisciplinary art-historical survey on lepra and its visualization in sculpture, murals, stained glass, and other media provides new information on the history of art, medicine, religion, and European society. Christine M. Boeckl maintains that the various terrifying aspects of the disease dominated the visual narratives of historic and legendary figures stricken with leprosy. For rulers, beggars, saints, and sinners the metaphor of leprosy becomes the background against which their captivating stories are projected.
people of certain regions more prone to leprosy. According to his analysis of the now-computerized data, Norway was divided into areas ranging from endemic to completely unaffected areas, such as the large region around Oslo, the most densely populated city (see fig. 1.7).26 A similar study conducted in the area of Bombay confirms that tremendous differences within endemic regions can coexist in close proximity. Today, Hansen’s disease is considered essentially a rural or “village” disease.
quarter 18th century, oil on canvas. (Image courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.) Societal Responses to Leprosy in Europe 55 (1545–1564), when the format of communion for the laity again became an issue. The controversy between Protestant rites of communion of bread and wine and the Catholic version for laypersons of bread alone (until Vatican II, 1962–65) inspired countless plague paintings. Such altarpieces show generally a priest or saint, disregarding the danger to their own
first pope in Rome. He subsequently acquired a special place in the pantheon of leprosy saints. His anonymous fifth-century biography, the Vita beati Silvestri, describes, in a much-revised version, the historic events of the fourth century ce, claiming that Pope Sylvester converted, baptized, and thus cleansed the Roman emperor Constantine I (ca. 272–337) of leprosy. Thirteenth-century frescoes preserved in Rome’s Capella di San Silvestro portray the most fascinating and comprehensive version of
legends that describe the saint as a generous Roman soldier born in the province of Pannonia (modern Hungary). A convert to Christianity, Martin was sent as a missionary to Gaul. According to hagiographic accounts, a vision of Christ wearing half a military coat motivated the saint to share his cloak with a beggar. Not all legends credit St. Martin with the cure of the leprous person; however, scenes portraying a beggar suffering from leprosy became particularly popular in his native Eastern
even exposed—remind us of frequently depicted joint deformations of leprosy patients and need to be compared with images of other leprous persons (see figs. 3.3, p. 58; 3.5, p. 63; 4.7, p. 84; and 4.9, p. 88).17 The so-called soldier’s lance is placed upside down and seems to serve the man better as a cane than as a weapon (the reversal of the shaft would diminish the power symbol). If this figure is Naaman before his cure, it would not be surprising that his long hair and beard are missing. Loss