Leprosy in Art During the Middle Ages

Leprosy is an ancient disease and is known to have been described by countless sources of antiquity.  However, very little was learned about the disease over the course of millennia, and treatments for the disease remained as ineffective in the middle ages as they had since ancient times.  Since infected individuals did not suffer immediate mortality, their survival and existence in society represented a perceived threat to the public.  They were often shunned and sometimes forced to exist as a completely separate cast of people.  As can be seen in the following image, lepers were typically portrayed as having ‘spots’, often red, during this time period.  The image shows religious instruction being given to leprous clerics of the middle ages, who were to act as priests in a completely separate leper society.


Because of the inability to cure the disease and the apparent contagious spread, peoples of middle ages were extremely wary of individuals who were infected.  Leprosy-sufferers were considered dangerous to the masses.  This notion was exacerbated by religious interpretations during this period which suggested that lepers were ‘dirty’ not just outwardly, but inwardly as well.  The physical deformities were considered manifestations of spiritual transgression.  Although in some cases these people were forced outside of encampments, city walls, and ultimately society, lepers continued to exist and appear within these societal ‘sanctuaries’.  Lepers were supposedly suffering the consequences of their sins, and as such were considered not only inferior to the rest of society, but also a potential source of evil intentions.  Lepers were thus spurned and denigrated wherever they were found.  Examples of this include the forced wearing of marked clothing, or of bells which jangled and announced the leper’s presence.  The following image shows an example of how these people were deprecated.


It was because of both the perceived contagiousness and spiritual uncleanliness of these individuals that the story of Jesus touching and healing a leper struck such a strong chord among people of the time.  Contact with a leper represented not only a physical risk of disease, but also the potential ostracization from the rest of society.  Because of this, people were loath to approach, interact with, and certainly to contact lepers.  Thus it is easy to understand why Jesus doing these very things was considered such an extreme action.  Images from medieval times, such as the following, help to shed light on this understanding of leprosy as a disease of sin, only curable by those of high faith.



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