A man in Oriental Costume (King Uzziah Stricken by Leprosy) by Rembrandt van Rijn

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

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Gehazi’s Kindred

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Leviticus is oddly detailed when it comes to treating leprosy. ‘Leprosy’ in the Bible encompasses a range of contagious skin conditions. If one is to follow the Levitical laws, lepers are to tear their clothes, leave their hair dishevelled, and announce their corrupting presence by shouting ‘unclean, unclean!’ (Leviticus 13:45).

None of these features appears in Rembrandt van Rijn’s painting. His departure from the biblical conventions for identifying lepers suggests that something unusual is happening here. The image is a study in theodicy.

Rembrandt’s painting depicts a man identified only by his illness. The tightly knotted turban, the cloak draped over his shoulders joined at the chest by a golden and bejewelled fastening, and the sparsely adorned room behind him with a serpentine column, all fail to give much insight into his identity. The highlighted features of the man, his face, his hands, show the marks of his skin condition.

The ‘oriental’ style of the figure has led most scholars to attempt to place him within the world of Scripture. He has been identified as Moses, Aaron, Dan, Naaman, and most frequently in recent scholarship as King Uzziah (Boeckl 2011: 74).

Placed alongside 2 Kings 5, this painting becomes a commentary on affliction. The dark eyes set within the mottled face could be Naaman’s or Gehazi’s. The narrative of Naaman’s healing turns on the shock twist of Gehazi’s deception and punishment. His unrighteousness manifests as impurity. 2 Kings 5 reinforces the association of leprosy with sin.

Rembrandt shows that wealth cannot purify the heart. The pensive facial expression sets a limit on what can be seen, and provokes the viewer to imagine the unseen condition of the heart. We see a face marred not by skin disease, but regret. Whoever Rembrandt has depicted here is the kindred of Gehazi.

 

References

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


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