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Francis Frith

Waterfall on the Abana, near Damascus, c.1865, Albumen silver print, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 84.XO.826.5.37, Image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

Rembrandt van Rijn

A man in Oriental Costume (King Uzziah Stricken by Leprosy), c.1639, Oil on panel, 103 x 79 cm, Chatsworth House Trust, Derbyshire, © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth; Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees / Bridgeman Images

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

Foreign Purity

Comparative Commentary by

For his bounty, the foreign general takes two mule-loads of soil. He arrives in Israel loaded with the fineries of gold, silver, and garments, but after his healing he values the dirt of the land more highly than all of this. The story of Naaman is touched by numerous such little ironies.

We are introduced to Naaman as the instrument of the LORD. It is a shock to discover that he also has leprosy, which typically signifies sin. The great general’s actions are directed by servants, who rescue him from ruin twice. The King of Israel tears his clothes and cries out, which are the actions required of lepers in Leviticus 13:45.

The most surprising twist, however, appears in the deception of Gehazi. In Gehazi we can locate one of the central issues of the Naaman story: foreignness. The servants of the foreign general are righteous, but the servant of the prophet of the LORD falls. Naaman’s leprosy is healed, and now attaches itself to Gehazi and his descendants. John Bunyan treats Gehazi as a precursor to Judas, but perhaps we also see something of Cain in him: desire for what another has, deception, and generational disease.

Gehazi only rarely appears in artistic renditions of this story. There are two miracles in 2 Kings 5: the healing of Naaman, and the affliction of Gehazi (Nelson 1987: 176).

Rembrandt van Rijn’s image opens up space for us to consider the darker miracle. The relative anonymity of the figure renders the blotched and decrepit skin more concerning. Rembrandt’s stylized ‘oriental’ dress presents this man as a foreigner. The meaning of the painting is not readily disclosed to the viewer. His expression is closed, eyes glazed over by the sorrow of reflection. Uzziah and Gehazi both stand as figures who attempted to grasp what was not theirs to have. The pensive face, in this light, serves as a study in unintended consequences. For a people who associate wealth with happiness, the marriage of opulent dress with a grave and diseased face distresses our arrangement of the world.

Namaan’s story also turns on misdirected desire for foreign comforts. He considered himself to be deserving of special attention and treatment, due to his status. He came with gifts typical of a state visit, carrying a letter of introduction from his king to the king of Israel. His self-importance nearly undoes the entire enterprise. Francis Frith’s image of the Abana depicts a simple waterfall set in rugged surrounds. One might wonder what the fuss was all about. Far from home, the land and waters of Aram become to Naaman the locales of imagination. Many Victorians felt themselves to be intimately connected to the lands of Scripture, but they were largely unaware of the geographical features of this landscape (Van Haaften 1980: ix). Artists tended to depict the grand monuments, leaving the surrounding geography to the haze of imagination.

Victorians were overconfident in the evidentiary force of photography. Frith does not render the river itself, but frames a particular perspective, seemingly more invested in the photographic craft than the literal description of a landscape. What cannot be seen is Naaman’s impression of home. The appended text comments upon the image, but in a suggestive way. Even home becomes foreign when photographed. The water, blurred by time, is odd and unfamiliar. Naaman must choose the foreign. Elisha summons him to immerse himself in the chosen waters. To be healed he must do something new, and become something new: na’ar qaton, a little child.

The healing waters, the refreshed childlike skin of Naaman, all become suggestive of baptism for Christian readers. The Dutch tapestry depicts a very dour Naaman disrobed in the waters. His leprosy has already fled from his skin. He now belongs to this foreign land and its strange waters. Gehazi fails to see the change in Naaman. He says, ‘My master has let that Aramean Naaman off too lightly’ (2 Kings 5:20), insisting on treating Naaman as a stranger. The tapestry interprets baptism and Naaman’s healing in tandem. The sacrament incorporates the child into the Church, and the tapestry shows that the same has happened to Naaman. The child is baptized in the triune name; Naaman emerges from the waters uttering the name of God, saying that he will ‘no longer … sacrifice to any god except YHWH’ (2 Kings 5:17).

 

References

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

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

Van Haaften, Julia. 1980. Egypt and the Holy Land in Historic Photographs: 77 Views by Francis Frith (New York: Dover Publications)

 

Next exhibition: 2 Kings 6:1–23