418 Naaman the leper and Elisha his healer: the trailer (in memory of Magdi Tóth)

On 1 July I will be lecturing (in Dutch) at the Hermitage Museum Amsterdam on a painting from the current exhibition, Rembrandt and his contemporaries: History paintings from The Leiden Collection. The painting is a depiction of the prophet Elisha declining to accept the gifts of the Syrian army commander Naaman, offered in thanks for curing his leprosy. Here is a preview, the part about leprosy. Seating still available.

(Perhaps) Lambert Jacobsz, Elisha refusing Naaman’s gifts, ca. 1628-33
Oil on canvas, 112 x 162.6 cm
New York, The Leiden Collection (LJ-100)

The lecture is about only one painting from the impressive exhibition. It reviews the multiplicity of meanings that can accrue to any given theme, especially in history painting. In this way the discussion in depth of one painting is exemplary for the subject of the exhibition. Concerning the attribution of the painting to Lambert Jacobsz, I sit on the fence.

Naaman, on the left, is the commander of the Syrian armed forces. He was afflicted with leprosy. A young Israelite woman who had been captured on a raid and put to work for Naaman’s wife tells her mistress that there is a prophet in Samaria who can cure him. The information inspires the king of Syria, who holds Naaman in high regard, to give him a sizeable fortune to take to Samaria as a reward. The prophet is Elisha, who tells Naaman to bathe seven times in the Jordan River. This treatment is miraculously effective. Naaman returns to Elisha with the gifts, exclaiming: “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant.” Elisha refuses to accept the reward.

That is what is being enacted in the painting, Naaman puts his hand into a sack of silver or gold. Elisha holds his hand over a book that is probably meant to be the Bible.

This précis leaves out a small subplot about the king of Israel, other details and a cruel sequel. For the whole story, read 2 Kings 5.

Roelandt Savery, A beggar with leprosy sitting on the ground, ca. 1603-13
Pen and ink, chalk and pencil on paper, 10.2 x 9.4 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-T-1888-A-1448(R))

Rembrandt, The leper (Lazarus klep), dated 1631 but according to the New Hollstein this is a later emendation for a print made ca. 1629
Etching, 9.4 x 6.4 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-400)

Leprosy is a terrible disease. It is a bacterial infection that eats away at the body of the victim, leading to extreme debilitation, from which death comes as a relief. Not until the age of antibiotics in the 1940s could it be treated effectively. In Prague, during his years at the court of Emperor Rudolf II, Roelant Savery made a heartrending drawing of a sufferer whose hands are hanging down from his wrists, so weakened that he can barely raise his head. Rembrandt portrayed a victim of the disease who was still strong enough to walk. He is holding a rattle called a lazarusklep – a leper’s clapper – by which he was required, in public, to make his presence known. Either with that or a bell.

Claes Jansz Visscher, The Haarlem lepers’ asylum, 1612
Etching and engraving, 10.2 x 15.7 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-1879-A-3470)

It was known that leprosy was transmissible from one person to another, so lepers were kept as much as possible in isolation. No European city of any size was without its lepers’ asylum, located outside the walls. Here is the one in Haarlem, depicted by Claes Jansz Visscher as a sight to be seen, in a set of city views of 1612. These institutions were governed by boards of upper class citizens appointed by the city. Two of these boards that we know of – in Haarlem in 1637 and Amsterdam in 1661 – considered the story of Naaman and Elisha emblematic for their own function and ordered from top artists in the city paintings of the subject for their meeting room.

Pieter de Grebber, Elisha refusing to accept presents from Naaman for curing Naaman’s leprosy, 1637
Oil on canvas, 120 x 185.5 cm
Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum (os I-103)

The regents of the Haarlem lepers’ asylum built themselves into the scene in the roles of Naaman and his staff, so that the painting doubled as a Biblical scene appropriate to their functions and a group portrait. In this way they called attention to their own generosity in donating time and perhaps money as well to those in need. Another motive also seems to have been involved. In his outstanding dissertation on Dutch group portraiture, Rudie van Leeuwen posits that the decision of the regents in 1637 to have themselves painted as upright providers of aid had to do with the ruling of the Haarlem town council in 1635 to demand financial accountability from the boards of city charities. In this atmosphere, with its suggestion that some regents might have been enriching themselves, the sitters wanted to associate themselves with a story in which gifts from a grateful patient were turned down.

Ferdinand Bol, Elisha refusing to accept the gifts of Naaman, 1661
Oil on canvas, 151 x 248.5 cm
Amsterdam, Amsterdam Museum (SA 7294)

The Amsterdam board separated the two types of painting, commissioning Ferdinand Bol to paint group portraits of the male and the female regents and, separately, a big painting of Naaman and Elisha.

Ferdinand Bol, Roman consul refusing gifts, ca. 1650s
Oil on canvas, 89.5 x 83.8 cm
Worcester, Worcester Museum of Art (1961.39)

A little aside. Ferdinand Bol must have found it funny when he got the commission for Naaman in 1661. In the 1650s, according to Albert Blankert in connection with the painted decorations for the Amsterdam town hall, he had  painted an opposite case – a Roman commander turning down gifts from figures in oriental dress.


He recycled his soldier for Naaman, just turning him around and giving him red britches.

As if being deathly ill and socially ostracized were not bad enough, lepers were also suspected of being morally depraved. This regrettable idea comes from the Bible itself, where the sister of Moses, Miriam, and the Judean king Uzziah are stricken with leprosy for their sins. This link took wings in writings on Naaman and his seven dips in the Jordan. In the allegorical rhetoricians’ play Naaman prinche van Sijrien (Naaman, prince of Syria), all seven mortal sins are brought into play, with the related leprous symptoms and the prescribed cure.

Symptom Related mortal sin Remedy
bloatedness pride modesty
thirst greed dispensing charity
hoarseness anger self-control
stinking breath gluttony sobriety
marrow decay envy brotherly love
infectiousness lewdness fervent prayer
paralysis idleness fear of God


Cornelis Engebrechtsz, Triptych with Naaman bathing in the Jordan, ca. 1520-25
Oil on panel, 59 x 38 (central panel), 59 x 17 (wings)
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie (1007)

Detail of the above

From depictions in art of Naaman before and during his cure, you would never know any of this. At the worst, as in this triptych of the early sixteenth century by Cornelis Engebrechtsz, he was given mild signs of a skin disease, like these white spots that you have to look for to find. [27 June: As an attentive reader observed correctly in a mail, those are not spots on Naaman’s skin but droplets of the water in which he is washing himself. I’ve enlarged the illustrated detail, to show that Engebrechtsz painted water the same way on the banks of the Jordan. Naaman’s only skin blemishes are two innocent birthmarks.] The main theme of the triptych is the cure, as is made clear by the figures on the outside of the wings.

They are Saints Cosmas and Damian, Early Christian martyrs who were physicians and are the patron saints of doctors, surgeons and pharmacists.

My assumption is that Naaman’s status as a heathen who recognized the divinity of the God of Israel overrode other considerations. No one wanted to see him disfigured, and no one wanted to think of him as a sinner.

The irony of an iconography: while these paintings were being made, leprosy was on the retreat. Lepers’ asylums were being closed or merged with institutions serving larger numbers of the sick.

A cherished colleague who died last month is the only art historian I know to have studied pictures of the leper and other “miserable beggars” not only exhaustively, but with outspoken sympathy for the sufferers. Magdi Tóth-Ubbens was a credit to our field.

This trailer deals with the medical and moral meanings attached to the Bible story of Naaman and Elisha. For theological, typological, ecclesiastical, political, alchemistic, musical meanings and more, and to find out what they may or may not have to do with the painting in the Leiden Collection, come to the Hermitage Museum Amsterdam on Saturday 1 July at 2 p.m.

References: see the links under the inventory numbers of objects in museums and, for all paintings, the website of the RKD-Netherlands Center for Art History, rkd.nl.

Sarah Bond, Clarissa Paul, Nils Holger Petersen, Thomas Römer, Anthony Swindell and Eric Zito, “Naaman (Commander of the Aramean Army),” Encyclopedia of the Bible and its reception online, Berlin (De Gruyter) 2022

Rudie van Leeuwen, “Beeltenissen van bestuurders en burgers als bijbelfiguren: Het bijbelse portrait historié in de Noordelijke en Zuidelijke Nederlanden van de zestiende en zeventiende eeuw,” PhD. dissertation Radboud Universiteit, Nijmegen, 2018

Magdi Tóth-Ubbens, Verloren beelden van miserabele bedelaarts: Leprozen – armen – geuzen, Lochem and Ghent (De Tijdstroom) 1987

Iris Turpyn, “De propheet Eliseus. Een zestiende-eeuws zinnespel uit de verzameling „Trou moet Blijcken‟: Tekstuitgave met inleiding en aantekeningen,” Master’s thesis for the University of Ghent, 2008-09

© Gary Schwartz 2023. Published on the Schwartzlist on 25 June 2023

Having been around for a while, I have seen some weird happenings in the world. But I do not think I have ever seen anything as bizarre as the events in Russia over the past two days. A Russian army of mercenaries seizes a province in the south and sets out on a march to Moscow to expel the high military command. The morning of 24 June President Putin declares the rebellion to be an act of treason that he pledges to punish, down to the last man. The afternoon of the same day he pardons the leader and praises the troops for their fighting in Ukraine. All I can think of is that Putin’s behavior was guided solely by craven fear for his own life, for which the sacrifice of Russian state integrity was not too high a price to pay.

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2 thoughts on “418 Naaman the leper and Elisha his healer: the trailer (in memory of Magdi Tóth)”

  1. Another few minutes of utter delight, stepping into a world you inhabit with such ease and grace, and one that is foreign, but fascinating to this art historical naïf .

    1. Dear Sheila,

      I like to think that my writings are accessible and hopefully enjoyable for anyone with an interest in art and ideas. Not just my colleague art historians, but any reader – well, any reader with a college education. So it means a lot to me that I get across to you in that way.

      With thanks and warm neighborly greetings,

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