Lambert Jacobsz’s Elisha Refusing Naaman’s Gifts depicts an episode from the Old Testament story of Naaman, the widely admired commander of the Syrian army, and the Prophet Elisha, who cured him of leprosy. To demonstrate his gratitude, Naaman, wearing a richly decorated turban and pale turquoise kaftan, came before the prophet to offer Elisha precious gifts, including the purple cloak on which he rests his left hand. The aged prophet, however, refused Naaman’s gifts and, placing his hand on an open Bible, explained to the commander that God, not he, had healed Naaman (2 Kings 5:1–16).
In this quiet and restrained scene, Lambert Jacobsz placed Naaman in the center of the composition and gave him added prominence through his slightly larger scale and the brilliant colors of his turban and kaftan. The balding and aged prophet, in contrast, is dressed soberly in a brown habit. The artist carefully modelled the faces of these two protagonists, paying great attention to their facial expressions. He focused particularly on Naaman’s gaze as he quietly reflects upon the prophet’s reasons for refusing to accept his gifts of appreciation—the moment of revelation when Naaman came to understand that “there is no God in all the world except in Israel.”
Among the onlookers to this encounter are Naaman’s servants and soldiers, as well as Elisha’s servant Gehazi, the attentive young man at the far right. Gehazi, as is recounted in a subsequent episode in the biblical story, follows Naaman after the Syrian commander leaves Elisha and accepts the gifts intended for his master, falsely telling Naaman that Elisha had sent him to do so (2 Kings 5:17–27). When Elisha became aware of Gehazi’s duplicity, he punished his servant by infecting him with the disease from which Naaman had just been cured.
Only a few Dutch paintings depicting this biblical narrative have survived, most of them by artists working in Amsterdam and Haarlem in the first half of the 1600s. Among them are paintings by Lambert Jacobsz’s teacher Jan Pynas (1581/2–1631), who depicted the subject in a 1627 painting, now in the Old Catholic Church in Leiden, and one by Pieter de Grebber (ca. 1600–1652/3), who executed the biblical narrative as a portrait historié for the regents of the Haarlem Leprozenhuis (Leper Asylum) in 1637 (fig 1).1 De Grebber’s work shows some affinities with Jacobsz’s painting in its compositional format and half-length depiction of elaborately dressed figures, but the two paintings differ greatly in character and in their treatment of the biblical subject.
Although the story of Naaman and Elisha was infrequently depicted by other artists, Jacobsz painted episodes from this story at least six times in the late 1620s and 1630s, including three scenes with small-scale figures and three with large-scale figures.2 One of Jacobsz’s early portrayals of this subject, which is known only from a black-and-white photograph (fig 2), has compositional elements similar to those seen in Elisha Refusing Naaman’s Gifts, such as the interaction between Naaman and Elisha. Not only is Elisha’s gesture of refusal reminiscent of that in the Leiden Collection painting, but Gehazi similarly stands behind the prophet in both works. Nevertheless, the now-lost painting represents an episode that immediately precedes the one Jacobsz depicted in the Leiden Collection painting. As a result, the earlier work lacks the spiritual and reflective character that is so poignant in the master’s later rendering of this biblical narrative.
Lambert Jacobsz and his many assistants produced history scenes with small figures throughout his career, but works with large figures—such as this one in the Leiden Collection—were made only for a short while and overlapped with Jacob Backer’s stay in Leeuwarden.3 Like Jacobsz, Jacob Backer (1608/9–51) was a Mennonite who grew up among fellow believers on Amsterdam’s Nieuwendijk. He had also trained with Jan Pynas. Around 1627, after finishing his training, Backer moved to Leeuwarden to assist his former neighbor with the production of paintings, especially large-figure history pieces.4 The collaboration between Jacobsz and Backer, his main assistant, must have been harmonious. Josua Bruyn once remarked that the large-figure paintings produced in this workshop—the Backer-like Jacobsz and the Jacobsz-like Backer paintings—were difficult to distinguish.5 One example of how closely related the works of these painters were during this period is The Tribute Money in Stockholm. This painting was long believed to have been painted by Lambert Jacobsz, but recently has been attributed to Jacob Backer.6
Since Jacobsz did not execute large figure pieces after Backer’s departure, Elisha Refusing Naaman’s Gifts must have been painted between 1628, shortly after Backer arrived in Leeuwarden, and 1633, when he returned to Amsterdam. During the same period, Jacobsz painted two other large-figure paintings depicting Elisha rebuking Gehazi in the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s University, Kingston (fig 3) and in the Landesmuseum Hannover (fig 4).7 In both the Kingston and Hannover paintings, the artist focused on the interactions of the two protagonists, with the elderly prophet admonishing his chastened servant by wagging his finger.
Elisha Refusing Naaman’s Gifts was not always attributed to Lambert Jacobsz. When the painting first appeared on the market in 2005, it was given to Pieter de Grebber.8 As Albert Blankert rightly recognized, however, this attribution is not tenable for stylistic reasons, despite the fact that Jacobsz knew De Grebber’s work.9 Blankert also pointed out that the way in which the old Elisha and young Naaman face each other is comparable to the confrontation between Elisha and Gehazi in the Hannover painting.10 Other arguments reinforce the attribution of the Leiden Collection painting to Lambert Jacobsz. For example, the artist often divided the picture plane and juxtaposed his main protagonists in this manner, as in The Disobedient Prophet in the Nationalmuseum Stockholm (fig 5).11 The old prophet in that painting, moreover, resembles Elisha.12
A final question concerns patronage. Since documents about a commission have not been preserved, it is not known for whom Lambert painted Elisha Refusing Naaman’s Gifts or where it was originally intended to be displayed. Could he have executed it for the Leprozenhuis in Leeuwarden, much as Pieter de Grebber did in 1637 for the regents of the Leprozenhuis in Haarlem, or as Ferdinand Bol would do in 1661 for the Leprozenhuis in Amsterdam? It seems unlikely that Jacobsz’s depiction of this Biblical story would have been suitable for the Regents Chamber in the Leprozenhuis in Leeuwarden. His painting does not focus on Naaman’s recovery from leprosy or on Elisha’s refusal to be rewarded, but rather on Naaman’s conversion to the true faith.13
Lambert Jacobsz’s interpretation of the story is consistent with Mennonite beliefs. A person is not born a Mennonite, but only becomes one when mature enough to decide based on personal belief to follow the Christian faith, much like Naaman, who came to that revelation through the actions and words of Elisha. In Elisha Refusing Naaman’s Gifts, Jacobsz, a devout Mennonite teacher and biblical expert, was more interested in conveying the conversion of a great leader to the Christian faith than in portraying physical drama.14 With the painting in The Leiden Collection, Jacobsz showed himself to be both a talented painter and an earnest Mennonite teacher.