Sunday, February 12, 2012

Illustrating Miracles: The Leper and the Chapel

Jesus Heals a Leper
From Sermons of Maurice de Sully
Italian (Milan or Genoa), 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.

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.

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:  
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. 39

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

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 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

No comments: