Lazarus does not have the plague!

I get it. We would all like to have more illustrations of the plague. It is hard to fathom how a horrific event like the Black Death has left so few bonafide illustrations. Misidentified illustrations do not solve the problem; they compound the confusion. Three images commonly used to illustrate the Black Death have been proven misidentifications; two of them represent lepers (Jones & Nevell, 2016; Green, Walker-Meikle, & Muller, 2014). One of these images, from Omne bonum by James Palmer, was misidentified in The British Library (now corrected) and reproduced on the cover of a plague encyclopedia (Green, Walter-Meikle, & Muller, 2014). We can now add a fourth misidentified image.

I have seen this image all over the internet, especially on Pinterest, as an example of plague. Google images pulled up 41 one images online on January 3, 2018, but it did not find the official museum site. The most common identification of the disease is plague or ‘Black Death’. The image itself tells us it is not the plague. 

This painting is called The Healing of Lazarus by an unknown Westphalian Master, c. 1400. It represents the parable of Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. This board painting is currently owned by the Barnes Foundation Collection. The online archive page does not indicate what type of infection the painting depicts.

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The Healing of Lazarus by a Westphalian Master, c. 1400. It depicts the parable in Luke 16: 19-31. (Public Domain, Barnes Foundation Collection online)

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ Luke 16:19-24 (NIV)

ClappersThe artist makes several changes but they are in keeping with the intent of parable. While the parable is not specific about the cause of the sores, the artist makes this Lazarus a leper, holding the telltale clappers in his hand. Lazarus does become the patron saint of lepers and the namesake of the lazaretto or quarantine house founded in the Middle Ages. These clappers or handbells are one of the best indicators in paintings that lepers are intended.

The confusion comes from some descriptions of plague victims as having plague spots. However, spots are not a distinctive sign of plague. Leprosy and plague look nothing alike. The discoloration from plague infections is the same that any fatal blood-borne infection with tissue death in the extremities would cause. Plague ‘spots’ would look similar to infections, like meningitis, that require an amputation of the extremities. Perpetuating the misidentification only confuses viewers and causes them to believe that this is what a plague looks like.

Lazarus in heavenIn another departure from the parable, the artist depicts Jesus holding Lazarus’s soul rather than the Patriarch Abraham. The cruciform halo indicates that it is Jesus. Abraham is occasionally given a halo in antique and medieval art, but it is not common. The substitution is not surprising in a Christian painting.

I also can’t help noticing how much the demons also look like dogs (with horns). The ears, fur, and tail on the right figure look like the dogs. The face of the right demon also looks like the face of the smallest dog tending Lazarus. So if the demons are misshapen dogs, would that indicate that the white dogs licking Lazarus are intended to be angels?

The moral of this story is to be suspicious of the identification of plague by ‘spots’ and always look for clappers (or bells). Leprosy is one of the most commonly depicted medieval diseases.

revised Jan. 7, 2018


References and Acknowledgements

Green, M., Walker-Meikle, K., & Muller, W. P. (2014). Diagnosis of a “Plague” Image: A Digital Cautionary Tale. The Medieval Globe, 1(1), 309–326.

Jones, L., & Nevell, R. (2016). Plagued by doubt and viral misinformation: the need for evidence-based use of historical disease images. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 16(10), 1–6. http://doi.org/10.1016/S1473-3099(16)30119-0

Thank you, Jack Hartnell, for identifying this painting in the Barnes Foundation Collection online.

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2 thoughts on “Lazarus does not have the plague!

  1. Dear Michelle et al,
    Many thanks for a much needed corrective. Please note, however, that the clapper was used as a substitute for the voice in begging for alms, not so much as a warning of the leper’s approach. I suspect that it is only in the seventeenth century or later, long after the disease has subsided in Europe, that it is widely interpreted as a warning of contagion, although others may be able to point to medieval instances of this.
    Two examples of the use of clappers or bells as mendicant’s tools:
    “Ami et Amile” in Old French, stanza 136. Ami lies at the gate of his wealthy friend Amile (note the parallels with Lazarus). “Ses tarterelles conmensa a tentir,/ Bienfait demande” [His rattles he began to shake/ begging for charity]. Luckily for Ami, Amile knows which way salvation lies and chooses to welcome the leper into his home.
    An English pontifical, BL MS Lansdowne 451 (c. 1425). The famous image of a leper with a bell on folio 127. The figure “speaks” through a banderole: “sum god my gentyll mayster for god sake.” She is begging, not warning. See Carole Rawcliffe’s note on this image in “Leprosy in Medieval England,” page 199.
    Although leprosy and conditions mimicking Hansen’s disease were feared in the MIddle Ages, sufferers were not necessarily shunned and the disease was a qualification for permission to beg – so much so that, as poverty was increasingly legislated in Europe, some indigents pretended to be leprous in order to obtain a mendicant’s license.

    I hope this is helpful,
    Sealy Gilles

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