Seven Scenes from the Story of the Seven Sacraments, Namaan Being Cleansed in the Jordan

South Netherlandish artist

Seven Scenes from the Story of the Seven Sacraments, Namaan Being Cleansed in the Jordan, c.1435–50, Tapestry, wool warp, wool and silk wefts, 231.1 x 208.3 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1907, 07.57.3, www.metmuseum.org

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The Baptism of Naaman

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Naaman never undergoes Christian baptism. Yet, when Naaman steps into the waters of the Jordan to be cleansed, Christians witness a prefiguration of their own baptisms. Immersed seven times, he arises with flesh ‘like that of a young boy’. Likened to a na’ar qaton, he is an analogue to the young Israelite girl, na’arah qettanah, who first directed him to Elisha (Brueggemann 2000: 33).

Depictions of Naaman’s baptism reached their high point in the medieval period, between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries (Boeckl 2011: 73), but here is a later example from the mid-fifteenth-century Netherlands. It is a panel from a larger tapestry depicting the seven sacraments along with Old Testament scenes intended to prefigure them. These biblical images provide visual commentary on the sacraments. The Old Testament scenes run horizontally along the top of the tapestry, with their sacramental counterparts beneath them, joined by a ‘scroll’ of text. The tapestry survives only in fragments, but the full tapestry would have been around 14 metres long and 4.8 metres high (Cavallo 1993: 160).

Naaman’s healing provides the tapestry’s commentary on baptism. We see him, already healed, in the waters of the Jordan, accompanied by two servants and Elisha. The viewer is invited to note the parallels between his healing and the baptism beneath him. His cleansed skin matches that of the child on the baptismal panel. The inclusion of Elisha, who was not present at the healing in the biblical text, suggests a priestly presence.

Only a portion of the scroll of text survives from this panel. We can read ‘… stories from scripture / … baptism purified / … washed in the Jordan’. Elisha does not follow the Levitical provisions for the management of skin diseases—examination, diagnosis, exclusion. Impurity creates isolation. By Elisha’s instruction, Naaman is instead purified. ‘Naaman’s story is the story of every baptized believer’ (Nelson 1987: 182).

 

References

Boeckl, Christine M. 2011. Images of Leprosy: Disease, Religion and Politics in European Art (Kirksville: Truman State University Press)

Brueggemann, Walter. 2000. 1 & 2 Kings (Macon: Smith and Helwys Publishing), pp. 331–40

Cavallo, Adolfo Salvatore. 1993. Medieval Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art), pp. 156–71

Nelson, Richard. 1987. First and Second Kings (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), pp. 176–83


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