As the deadly Novel Corona Virus or COVID-19 grips the world in its vicious claws and spreads its wings far and wide, it made me wonder how artists during similar epidemic-ridden periods in the past would have been affected and how they would have rendered these afflictions in their own work. I did some research and was surprised to come across several works of art depicting the same. So get ready for a trip down memory lane to reminisce about how various pandemics in history have been depicted by artists.
Tournai Citizens Burying the Dead During the Black Death, 14th century
During the Black Death (1347 to 1351) skeletons and death were very common in culture and art. This miniature shows the mass burial of the dead by the citizens of Tournai, Belgium. There are fifteen mourners and nine coffins all crammed into the small space, with the face of each mourner given individual attention, each conveying genuine sorrow and fear.
Painting by French artist Josse Lieferinxe at the end of the 15th century
In this painting from the 1490s, St. Sebastian, one of the saints whom people prayed to for protection against the plague, kneels before God while a grave attendant is stricken with the plague as he is burying someone who died of the disease. He has a single bubo on his bent neck. You have to look closely to notice the swollen red lump (the bubo) on the neck of the man on the ground in green sleeves.
Giacomo Borlone de Burchis, The Triumph of Death with The Dance of Death, 15th century
The Dance of Death (Danse Macabre), which is a part of The Triumph of Death scene, shows Death as a crowned skeleton queen swinging scrolls in both hands. Two skeletons at her sides are killing people with a bow and an ancient arquebus. Beneath her feet is a marble coffin where the corpses of an emperor and a pope lie surrounded by poisonous animals, symbolic of a quick and merciless end. Powerful yet desperate people from diverse social classes are offering valuables and begging for mercy.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Triumph of Death, c. 1562
The Triumph of Death by Flemish Renaissance master Pieter Bruegel the Elder also shows the Black Death. An army of skeletons wreaks havoc across a blackened, desolate landscape. Fires are burning in the distance, the sea is full of shipwrecks. Everything is dead, even the trees and the fish in a pond. This painting depicts people of all social backgrounds, from peasants and soldiers to nobles as well as a king and a cardinal. Death takes them all indiscriminately.
Pieta, 1576 by Titian
When Venice was struck by plague, Titian painted the Pietà as a prayer for the survival of himself and his son, Orazio. In the bottom right-hand, propped under the stone lion, is a tablet on which Titian and Orazio are seen praying to the Virgin for delivery from the plague, but in vain. Titian died “of fever” and Orazio also died during the plague. Glimmers of silvery torch and moonlight on the mosaic canopy above Christ, on the statues of Moses and the Sybil and the pale glowing body of Christ accentuate the terrible gloom. While the painting pleads for salvation, the emotional texture is of fear and horror at the closeness of death.
Van Dyck’s Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-Stricken of Palermo, 1624.
This was painted by Van Dyck on top of a self-portrait he had sketched on a canvas. Van Dyck was in Palermo, Sicily, when a plague broke out. On July 15, 1624, the remains of Saint Rosalie—the city’s patroness, who died about 1160—were discovered on Mount Pellegrino, seen here above the harbor of Palermo. The canvas was cut on all sides, which trimmed the paint surface slightly on the left and right. Matching canvas has been added and repainted to complete the putto at the top left to the saint’s left hand. The landscape is quite worn and the upper sky is restored.
Paulus Furst of Nuremberg, Doctor Schnabel von Rom, 1656
This etching displays a protective costume used in France and Italy in the 17th century consisting of an ankle-length overcoat, a mask, gloves, boots, a wide-brimmed hat, and another outer garment. The mask had glass openings for eyes, a curved bird-like beaked shaped face with straps to hold the beak in front of the doctor’s nose and two small nose holes serving as a respirator which held sweet or strong smelling substances (usually lavender). The beak could also hold dried flowers, herbs, spices, camphor or a vinegar sponge to keep away bad smells, known as miasma. This costume terrified people because it was a sign of imminent death.
Bonaparte Visiting the Plague House at Jaffa, 1804.
The painter Antoine-Jean Gros depicts the courage of General Bonaparte visiting plague-stricken French troops in the courtyard of a Jaffa mosque in Syria, being used as a military hospital, in 1799. Bonaparte is seen touching a sore on one of the plague victims with his bare hand. One of the officers has a handkerchief over his mouth. On the left, two Arabs are handing out bread to the sick. On the right, a blind soldier is trying to approach the general-in-chief. In the foreground, in the shadows, the dying men are too weak to turn towards their leader. The painter implies that Bonaparte’s virtue and courage justify the horrors of war and gave him the luminous aura and gestures of Christ healing the lepers in religious paintings.
Arnold Böcklin, Plague, 1898
Plague illustrated Arnold Böcklin’s obsession with war, pestilence, and death. Böcklin, a Symbolist has personified Death here as a winged creature, flying through the street of a medieval town. According to art historians he took inspiration from news about the plague appearing in Bombay in 1898, though there is no straightforward, visible evidence of Indian inspiration (Symbolists always used as ambiguous and universal symbols as possible).
Egon Schiele, The Family, 1918
The 20th century brought the Spanish Flu, the horrific scale of which is hard to fathom. Egon Schiele was one of the great artists who died from it. The Family was unfinished at the time of Schiele’s death and initially was titled Squatting Couple. It was one of his last paintings. It shows Schiele himself with his wife Edith and their unborn child. Edith died of Spanish flu in the 6th month of her pregnancy. Three days after she died Egon did too.
Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait after Spanish Influenza, 1919
Among other famous artists who died of the Spanish flu were Gustav Klimt, Amadeo de Souza Cardoso, and Niko Pirosmani. Edvard Munch caught it but he survived. Munch painted this work in 1919. He created a series of studies, sketches, and paintings, where in a very detailed way he depicted his closeness to death. As seen here, Munch’s hair is thin, his complexion is jaundiced, and he is wrapped in a dressing gown and blanket.
David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Falling Buffalos), 1988-1989
In this photo-montage a herd of buffalos is seen falling off a cliff to their deaths. Made in the wake of the artist’s HIV-positive diagnosis, Wojnarowicz’s image draws a parallel between the AIDS crisis and the mass slaughter of buffalos in America in the 19th century. It reminds viewers of the neglect and marginalization that characterized the politics of HIV/AIDS at the time. Wojnarowicz died of HIV/AIDS in 1992.
Keith Haring, Ignorance = Fear, 1989
Keith Haring designed and executed this poster in 1989 after he was diagnosed with AIDS the previous year. The poster depicts three figures gesturing “see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing”. This implied the struggles faced by those living with AIDS and the challenges posed by individuals or groups that fail to properly acknowledge and respect the epidemic. Keith Haring died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31.
Untreatable plagues have been a regular feature of human existence for centuries. The medieval Black Death from 1347 to the late 17th century and the Spanish flu were some of the most devastating pandemics in human history. The paintings in this post remind us that “the plague” is not just a thing of the past but a global phenomenon that keeps recurring every few decades.
Not only did art survive the trials and tribulations of disease, it flourished. Even though art history is brimming with images of death, it is also full of learning. It’s almost as if all that pestilence served as a driving force for artists to create incredulous masterpieces aimed at affirming the importance of life. As a global community, we need to take a lesson from this, stop focusing on our differences and fight these outbreaks together. All we need is a positive outlook, the will to fight and a universal messenger like art to transmit the message everywhere.
With the current COVID-19 pandemic, we fear epidemics like never before. We don’t know yet what would be the final numbers of this global contagion, but looking back into art history, we realize that the past holds optimistic messages for modern day man. If people could endure incomprehensible contagions in those days, then so can we.
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