By Jenna Noelle Ogden
Master’s Thesis, Cleveland State University, 2011
Introduction: Draped in a black cloth with a black veil covering his face, a man stands in an open grave. A priest throws dirt on his head while declaring him dead. This man is a leper who has been shunned by society and declared legally dead. His living death is cemented by the loss of his right to own or inherit property and to make contracts. According to the Third Lateran Council of 1179, he must now live outside of the main community in a leprosarium.
France had the largest number of leprosaria with 2,000 by King Louis VIII‟s death in 1228. Life in a leprosarium was similar to life in a monastery because both were isolated lifestyles patterned on a set of rules. The leprosarium in Lille, France, for example, had a set of rules, approved by the Bishop of Tournai in 1239, that specified its regulations: lepers were not allowed to leave the leprosarium without permission, they had to travel in pairs, and private conversations between men and women were prohibited. Also, unlike other leper houses, the leprosarium in Lille was located in the city not isolated from it. The Lille leprosarium shows that different degrees of isolation existed between lepers and the healthy laity.
Although lepers were predominantly isolated from the rest of the late medieval community, imagery of lepers could still be used to help late medieval people visualize closer relationships to Christ. Indeed, lepers offered late medieval people the opportunity to perform aspects of late medieval Christian religion in which they used visualization to develop their spirituality. On the one hand, saints and mystics may have physically touched the leprous body while caring for it in their attempts to imitate Christ, but on the other hand, the majority of late medieval people would have been exposed to it primarily through imagery.
For example, miniatures from manuscripts, like Books of Hours, were used in private prayer sessions, wherein late medieval people would meditate on Passion imagery to cultivate their spirituality. Since the focus of these images was the visualization of Christ‟s pain with gaping wounds and dripping blood, higher class people like saints and mystics would gravitate towards the method of pain to access Christ. On the other hand, the majority of the laity would more frequently be exposed to public imagery, like sculptures and altarpieces. Since it was popular to depict the pieta in sculpture, the laity was more likely to develop their spirituality through compassion instead of pain. Throughout my thesis, however, I intend to focus on manuscript miniatures to maintain consistency in the demonstration of my argument. I will argue that the leprous body was an intermediary to the body of Christ in the mind of late medieval viewers. They could utilize this accessible body with in imagery as a tool to cultivate a closer relationship with Christ.