When we were isolated in our homes, wearing masks/gloves in supermarkets, and scared we were going to catch the devastating Coronavirus, people brought up that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the pandemic of the Black Death. If he could create in such conditions, then we can do anything. Many artists and performers feel the need to create during bleak times. But what did art look like in the 14th century when the Black Death ravaged Europe and how was this period depicted in Medieval art?
The Black Death
Before we dig into the art, here is a brief description of the Bubonic Plague itself. The Bubonic Plague, or the Black Death, ravaged Asia and Europe during the 14th century or Medieval Times. The Black Death is an infection caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria. Unlike Coronavirus, Bubonic plague isn’t airborne (meaning it doesn’t travel in the air) but transferred from one host to another by fleas who had contracted the disease from other sick hosts. The 14th century was full of brand-new trade routes between Europe and Asia where fleas and rats (who were infected themselves by the fleas) had easy access to villages and cities galore. Due to a lack of scientific knowledge and hygiene practices, the Bubonic plague spread quickly and soon twenty-million people in Europe (yeah, you read that right) perished to the disease.
Symptoms of the disease are the usual: fever, chills and vomiting. However, victims are covered in boils ready to burst with puss and blood (okay, no more gross talk after this, I promise). After all of these symptoms, it doesn’t take long before the victim dies; usually 2-7 days after diagnosis.
During the 14th century, a third of Europe’s population was killed and still, people had the urge to create, including Shakespeare with his little play King Lear. So, without further ado, here is a list of the top 9 artworks created during the Black Death.
1. Depicting the Dead
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During the reign of the Black Death, victims were buried in mass burial pits and this work depicts a mass grave in the town of Tournai, Belgium. We see fifteen people carrying the coffins of their loved ones in an extremely small frame. If one were to look closer, the faces of the figures are all unique and full of emotion which was rare for Medieval art at the time (naturalism didn’t become popular until a century later). Fear and grief are evident in this work taking inspiration from how people felt during these times.
This image is a detail of a miniature in The Chronicles of Gilles Li Muisis in the abbot of the monastery of St. Martin the Righteous in Belgium. When the Black Death hit, skeletons and death were a popular motif. These types of works dedicated to death are titled Memento Mori which is Latin for ‘remember you must die.’ Memento Mori works remind the viewer that death is always on the horizon. These works were created as still-lives with dead flowers, extinguished candles, clocks, and creepy skeletons. Memento Mori works were mostly popular in the 17th century and into modernity, however, this miniature detail above is an example of how fragile humanity is even when we feel like the strongest species on the planet.
2. The ‘Dance of the Dead’ Motif
On a different note, the Danse Macabre, or Dance of the Dead, was a popular and entertaining motif of Medieval art. In this work by Giacomo Borlone de Burchis of Clusone, Italy, Burchis depicts people of all walks of life dancing with skeletons for the Queen of Death who stands at the top of the work holding two scrolls. Beside her are two skeleton goons armed with bows and an arquebus (which was an early prototype for the musket). The Queen stands on an open coffin which holds the dead bodies of a pope and an emperor proving that no man is safe from this disease. People underneath the Queen of Death beg for her mercy as they shower her with gifts and money. But the Queen of Death isn’t the Queen of Goods and Money, she wants lives and will take as she pleases.
This doesn’t sound funny nowadays of course, but this was considered tongue in cheek for the 14th century. Dancing with skeletons to appease Death herself reinforces how performing, like dancing, didn’t go away because people were dying. People wanted a way to get loose and laugh before dying where they stood.
3. Devils Sent to Kill
This manuscript was painted in the 14th century in Tuscany where almost half of their population succumbed to the disease. It is a tiny image from a page in the Medieval art manuscript, and is full of action and detail. Devils, almost disguised as cherubs, murder people below with bows and arrows. The arrows symbolize the Black Death causing chaos and death to the people of Italy. Arrows often pop up in metaphors in the Bible and Greek Mythology and this anonymous artist pulls from inspiration.
Upon further investigation, little devils, like the ones in this manuscript, are sent by God himself to cause pain for humanity because of their sins. The goal of this image is to install fear in religious people. See, if they stop committing sins, then devils won’t shoot them with the Black Death.
4. Virgin Mary
There is no Medieval art without the appearance of the Virgin Mary or Madonna. Iconographies of the mother of Jesus Christ are found in churches and altars everywhere and truly define religious art. This panel was painted by Italian artist Guariento di Arpo between 1345 – 1350. Mary is depicted sitting as she nurses the Christ child. She wears a golden crown adorned with jewels and above her head is a figure of God giving the Mother and Child His blessing.
The title of Madonna of Humility refers to Mary representing a maternal figure for everyone who prays and desires God’s mercy. This work was created when the Black Death was wiping out entire communities around Europe and Asia and during this time, people believed God was behind the disease. The Church jumped on this vulnerability to persuade more people to convert by explaining that if people prayed, came to Church, and wiped sin from their lives, then they wouldn’t get sick. Of course, this isn’t true, but it didn’t stop people from going to Church making the Church even more powerful than it was before.
This painting by Lieferinxe was painted during the Renaissance but depicts a time where plague ravaged a community, specifically in Pavia, Italy in the 7th century. This was a smaller plague that occurred years before the infamous Black Death and depicts St. Sebastian pleading with God to save the sick and dying. During the Black Death, many people prayed to St. Sebastian with hopes of eradicating the disease from everyday life making St. Sebastian a popular saint in Medieval art who was depicted in images like the one below from the church of Saint-Crepin-Ibouvillers in France.
St. Sebastian was a Roman military officer during the 300s AD. He was martyred with arrows and finally clubbed to death which is why he is depicted with arrows piercing his skin in Lieferinxe’s painting.
6. Doctors Tried Everything to Find a Cure
This woodblock created in Germany in the 15th century depicts a method of treating plague victims during the Black Death. Doctors would use a sharp stick and poke the bubo boil and drain the infection from the patient. This failed to work but shows that doctors were trying everything to eradicate the disease using the limited information they had on infections, bacteria, and the human body. (Also did all doctors wear cool hats?!)
7. Depicting Plague Doctors
Speaking of cool hats worn by doctors, this engraving depicts a doctor wearing a typical 17th century plague mask. Plague outbreaks kept coming and going for centuries and people kept seeking ways to protect themselves. Doctors would wear the masks to treat patients without getting sick and they sure looked scary while doing their jobs (or cool depending on the kind of person you are).
The mask wasn’t created for the plague but adopted from the Italian stage. Commedia dell’Arte is the Italian tradition of actors dressing up as different stock-characters with the use of different masks and costumes. The Doctor wore the mask depicted above with the long nose and goggles. When the Black Death hit again in the 17th century, doctors adopted the mask to prevent the disease from entering their own bodies, with no success.
8. Murder for a Cure
Going to a doctor wasn’t the only method Europeans attempted to get rid of the Black Death. Christians believed that the Jewish people were responsible for the spread of the disease. The combination of that and the fact the Jewish people don’t believe Jesus was the Messiah made God angry therefore creating the Black Death.
Like many other theories and methods to eradicating the disease, the Jewish people were not responsible for the Black Death and died at the same rate as European Christians. This didn’t stop Christians from massacring their Jewish neighbors. The first massacre occurred in France in 1348 and soon there were massacres all over the continent with one depicted in this manuscript. In the work, Christians burn Jewish people with the hope of making God satisfied enough to stop the disease. It’s unknown how many Jewish people were murdered but this terror lasted for most of the pandemic.
9. The Triumph of Death Motif
Painted long after the events of the original Black Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicted the personification of the battle between life and death. “The Triumph of Death” or death winning the battle against humanity, was a popular motif during the terrors of the Black Death. Modeled after “The Triumph of Fame” by poet Petrarch, which discusses the emotions of soldiers returning successfully from war, “The Triumph of Death” investigates the very opposite. Skeletons drag humans to their deaths as well as humiliate the dead by digging up graves. The scene is graphic showing the unpleasant reality disease brings to a civilization leaving virtually no hope for survival.
When Pieter Bruegel was painting the work, he was inspired by the turmoil that was happening in his own lifetime, displaying evidence that The Triumph of Death was not only popular in Medieval art but also remained popular for future artists.
The Art of the Pandemic Beyond the Black Death
It’s interesting to explore the art of modern pandemics alongside the Black Death. The comparison can illustrate the way artists use pain and destruction to create powerful images.
The work shown on the left is by famous Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. Munch painted The Scream but is also known for his series of works inspired by the Spanish Flu epidemic during the early 20th century. In this work titled Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu, Munch paints himself staring at the viewer in his bedroom which is painted crudely and colorfully almost as if he is imagining himself in a haze. Munch might be dreaming of the security and comfort of his home to translate to the outside and dying world or his house is a bubble of security where he stays in a dreamlike state, unable to interact with others outside. Munch, whose mother and sister both died of tuberculosis, was always scared of death and illness. Munch was always a sick man himself and depicted the pain he often felt in his work. It’s unclear whether Munch contracted the Spanish Flu, but it’s clear that the disease made an impact on his body of work.
The work on the right is titled Ignorance = Fear created by Keith Haring in 1989. Keith Haring was responding to the AIDS epidemic which destroyed the lives of many people including people part of the LGBTQ community including the artist himself who died from AIDS in 1990. As a graffiti artist, Haring’s human and canine figures are instantly recognizable.
This work displays the frustration people had about the Government’s response to the AIDS epidemic. If they did respond, it was with little concern because many believed the disease only affected gay men which was not the case at all. Haring believed that the Government and other homophobic people were ignorant to the real dangers of the disease relating ignorance to fear and silence to death. In this work, Haring urges the viewer to speak up, support others, and not allow misinformation to cloud judgment.
Art can always be found even in the bleakest of times and whether it’s the Black Death, Spanish Flu, or the AIDS epidemic, art was being made using pain, frustration, fear, and death as an inspiration. Medieval art explores these emotions in detail, giving us a glimpse today of how it was to live during one of the deadliest pandemics the world has ever seen.