Sunday, February 11, 2024

Illustrating Miracles: The Leper and the Chapel*

Jesus Heals a Leper
From the Sermons of Maurice de Sully
Italian (Milan or Genoa), c. 1320-1330
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 187, fol. 6v

“A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said,

"If you wish, you can make me clean."
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand,
touched him, and said to him,
"I do will it. Be made clean."
The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean,
Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.
He said to him, "See that you tell no one anything,
but go, show yourself to the priest
and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed;
that will be proof for them."
The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.
He spread the report abroad
so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.
He remained outside in deserted places,
and people kept coming to him from everywhere.”
(Mark 1:40-45)
Gospel for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

The Gospel and First Reading of today’s liturgy, for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, focus on leprosy. The First Reading comes from Leviticus, Chapter 13, which lays down rules by which various forms of skin infections can be recognized and dealt with.1   Since there was no real cure for leprosy (it wasn’t discovered until the 1980s2) those who suffered from it were harshly treated, by more or less total exclusion from the community.  Since the definition of leprosy was not the clinical one it would be today, there were no doubt many other skin conditions that were included in the word. 

A Leper with a Bell
From a Pontifical (Liturgical book for bishops)
Flemish, c. 1400
London, British Library
MS Landsdowne 451, fol. 127r
Leprosy was not well  understood and, therefore, was greatly feared.  Lepers were subject to many rules intended to isolate them from the general population in order to control the disease.  Among those rules was the use of a bell by the leper to announce his or her presence in public places.  In some of the illustrations that follow you will see that instead of a bell, wooden clappers were often used. 

In the Gospel reading Jesus responds to the plea of a leper by healing him and then instructing him to follow the rules laid down for lepers who were healed, by going to a priest to show his clean skin and providing an offering in the temple. It is a sign both of His power over nature and of the revelation of a loving, healing God which He represents.

Johann Füssli, "The Law of the Leper in the Day of His Cleansing"
(An illustration of what the law required a cleansed leper to do to return to society)
Swiss, c. 1730
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dep of Prints and Drawings

The same story of the healing of one leper is found in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 5:12-14) and there is an additional story of the healing of ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19). Yet, in spite of the fact that there are three references to this subject in the New Testament there seem to be relatively few images of this subject in the art of the West. 

Among them are:  

Christ Healing the Leper
Detail from The Andrews Diptych
Probably German, c. 800
London, Victoria and Albert Museum_

The Healing of the Leper
French (Lorraine), c. 870-880
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

In both of the ivory carvings above, the fact of the man's leprosy is conveyed by small pock marks spread over the exposed parts of his body.  This creates slight shadows that have the same effect as the painted marks we will see in illuminated manuscripts.

Healing of the Leper
Wall Painting, German, 986-1000
Ueberlingen, Chapel of St. Sylvester
The rough surface of this painting suggests that at some point in its history it was plastered over, after the surface had been roughened to provide better adhesion for the new plaster.

Jesus Heals the Leper and the Leper Shows Himself
From the Gospel Book of Otto III
German (Reichenau), c. 1000
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4453, fol. 39v

Christ Healing the Leper
From the Bernward Column
German, c. 1020
Hildesheim, Church of Saint Mary

Christ Healing the Leper
From the Codex Aureus of Echternach
German, c. 1030
Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum
MS Hs 155142, fol.54r

The Healing of the Leper
From a Gospel Book
German (Ecternach), ca. 1035
Brussels, Bibliotheque royale Albert Ier
MS 9428, fol. 23r

Christ Healing the Leper
From a Picture Bible
French, c. 1197
Amiens, Bibliotheque municipale

Master of the Roman de Fauvel, Christ Healing the Leper
From a Speculum historiale by Vincent of Beauvais
French (Paris), c. 1333-1334
Paris, Bbiliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 316, fol. 333v

Cristoforo Orimina, Christ Healing the Leper
From a Missal
Italian, c. 1370
Avignon, Bibliotheque municipale
MS 138

Master of the Livre du Sacre and workshop, Christ Healing the Leper
From a Speculum historiale by Vincent of Beauvais
French (Paris), c. 1370-1380
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvlle acquisition francaise 15940, fol. 44v

Christ Healing the Leper
From a Pelerinage de Jesus-Christ
French, c. 1400
Paris, Bibliotheque de l'Institut de France
MS 9

Jean Colombe and Workshop, Christ Healing the Leper
From a Vita Jesu Christi by Ludolf of Saxony
French (Bourges), c. 1480-1485
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 177, fol. 163r

This tradition of depicting the event was carried over seamlessly into the printed illustrations of Bibles and other books once printing had replaced illumination in the illustration of books.

Georg Pencz, Christ Heals the Leper
German, First Half of 16th Century
Paris, Musee du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques

Hans Schaeufelein, Christ Healing the Leper
From Das Plenarium
German, 1517
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dep of Prints and Drawings

Sebald Beham, Christ Healilng the Leper
From Christliche Auslegung der Evangelien
German (Ingolstadt), 1530
London, Trustees of the British Museum
Note the comment below the image.  This is the Gospel for the third Sunday after Epiphany.  Now the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, in Year B.

Anonymous, Christ Healing the Leper
From a New Testament
German, c. 1551
London, Trustees of the British Museum

And this carried over into other media as well.

Bernardino Passeri, Christ Healing the Leper
Italian, c. 1593
London, Royal Collection Trust

Healing of the Leper
French, 17th Century
Chateau-Landon, Church of Notre Dame

Pieter de Jode I, The Healing of the Leper
Flemish, c. 1600-1634
Washington, National Gallery of Art

This carries over into the modern era, with one twist.  The modern paintings I have found always show the leper from the back.  Perhaps because by the time these works were made leprosy was better understood and less ubiquitous the painters found it difficult to depict the leper from the front or side and opted instead for the back of a figure.  It is an interesting hypothesis, but one which I am not able to support too strongly as I have only found two instances to date.

James Tissot, The Leper Beseechs Jesus to Cure Him
French, c. 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

Niels Larsen Stevns, Healing of a Leper
Danish, 1913
Viborg, Skovgaard Museum

Sometimes, this miracle is illustrated in a painting which includes other scenes. For example, there is a manuscript illumination in the Bibliotheque nationale de France, showing the scene in conjunction with the raising of the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17).

Healing of the Leper and Raising of the Widow's Son
From Sepeculum historiale by Vincentius Bellovacinsis
French (Paris), 1463
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 50, fol. 220v

The best known of these images is found in conjunction with the Sermon on the Mount in no less a place than the Sistine Chapel.3   The Sistine Chapel, as is well-known, holds an extremely important place in Catholicism. It is here that various papal ceremonies take place, most notably the meetings of the solemn conclave which follows the death of a Pope, during which his successor is elected. It is also famous for the great paintings by Michelangelo that cover the ceiling. But, this scene is not located on the famous ceiling. It is located on the far less famous side walls.4   These walls are almost certainly overlooked by the vast majority of visitors to the Chapel whose whole attention seems often to be focused solely on the ceiling and the altar wall, which carries Michelangelo’s equally famous painting of the Last Judgment.  

The dual scene painting of the Sermon on the Mount and the Healing of the Leper is by the artist, Cosimo Rosselli.  On the left side of the painting we see Jesus, surrounded by a crowd, delivering the Sermon on the Mount.  In the right hand corner of the picture we see him curing the kneeling leper.

Rosselli was one of a group of artists who were commissioned to decorate the walls of the Chapel, by Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere, who built and decorated it. Sixtus was the uncle of Pope Julius II della Rovere, the Pope who commissioned the great ceiling from Michelangelo.

Cosimo Rosselli, Sermon on the Mount and Healing of the Leper
Italian, 1481-1483
Vatican City, Sistine Chapel

Pope Sixtus commissioned the artists Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Luca Signorelli and Cosimo Rosselli to decorate the Chapel in the period 1480-1483. All but Rosselli are well-known and highly respected masters of the later Quattrocento period. Rosselli is a far less known and less respected artist based in Florence.  However, here in the Sistine he appears to have risen to the occasion, influenced perhaps by the work of the greater artists around him.  

Interior of Sistine Chapel, showing the division into three zones

The original decoration of the Chapel was conceived as divided into three zones. In the lowest zone, the decoration consisted of trompe l’oeil representations of draperies, hanging from and between equally fictive architectural elements. (The actual walls of the Chapel are simple, flat structures.) The great Raphael tapestries were later commissioned (by Julius II to cover these painted draperies on special occasions.) 

In the upper zone of the Chapel the original decoration was of images of past Popes. Above this, in the space now occupied by Michelangelo’s masterwork, the ceiling was originally painted a deep blue with golden stars, a very traditional finish.

Meanwhile, in the middle zone, the walls were painted with scenes from the lives of Moses and of Christ. The scenes of Moses fill the south wall, while the Life of Christ occupies the north wall. 

Photograph of a recent, rare event -- the hanging of the Raphael Tapestries in their original location.  The Tapestries are usually on display in the galleries of the Vatican Pinacoteca.

The Chapel was consecrated on the feast of the Assumption, August 15, 1483 by Sixtus IV. These middle zone decorations dominated the Chapel for only 25 years, for in 1508 Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to replace the starry ceiling with a new design (originally to have been of the Twelve Apostles) which made it one of the most famous sites in the world and forever eclipsed the work of the earlier painters.

1. For the entire text of Leviticus, 13 see

2. For information on leprosy history and treatment see

3. For information on the Sistine Chapel see:

4. Detailed information on the Sistine Chapel paintings appears on the website of the Vatican Museums, especially information on the south and north walls, which can be accessed from

I also suggest that you visit the virtual tour of the Chapel also located on the Vatican Musuems website at Although it is mainly focused on presenting the Michelangelo ceiling it does give a real sense of how it feels to stand in the room. You are able to zoom in and out on the ceiling frescoes, although it is less reavealing for the frescoes on the side walls.

© M. Duffy, 2012.  Revised 2024.

* Note:  I first published this essay in 2012.  Twelve years is a long time on the internet and many more sources are available now.  In addition, the quality of the pictures that are posted by museums and libraries is much higher.  For these reasons, I have revisited this subject and renewed every picture in the original essay, in addition to finding some new images, which I have added.  

Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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