27 January 2012

Pocket Full of Posies: The Black Death in Art

There was not just one "black death," and it was not called the Black Death until the 1830s. Europeans simply knew it as the "pestilence."

It wiped out entire towns, and ended up killing around half the population of Europe. (We used to believe it killed 1/3, but the error of this number has been realized within the last decade.) The effect of such an event (or series of events) dramatically changed medieval society. True, Spanish Influenza actually killed more people; however, the main difference is that a larger portion of the population was affected in the 1340s than in 1918, and people in the 20th century had an idea of what was happening in that they were aware of "germs." In the 14th century, people fought over whether the disease(s) was caused by "bad air," wells poisoned by Jews, God's anger, one of the four horsemen, etc. These poor people must have been terrified to see their family and friends dropping swiftly around them,* with no idea as to why, or if they will be next. 

This sudden impact on population and psyche took its toll on religion, politics, social order and (lesser known) on Art.
The pestilence killed several contemporary artists, particularly in Italy. "...Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Pietro Lorenzetti died in the first out break of 1348. Later plague epidemics took the lives of Andrea del Sarto, Titian, Dosso Dossi, and the greatest Venetian genius of all time, Giorgione." [source] This alone impacted the thriving art world.

Those remaining artists altered their subject matter. Prior to this outbreak, Jesus was commonly depicted as a great King who came to save us. A golden halo usually surrounds his head, as well as the heads of the saints. 

13th century, Serbian Monestary Hilandar, Mt. Athos
After the plague, Jesus transformed into the suffering, dying Christ that we see in many European Churches. He wore a bloody crown of thorns and had a hemorrhaging, pierced side. 
Italian, mid-14th century, Met Museum Collections
The rest of the art world was not spared from the onslaught of Death. It permeated the paintings in the form of tortured people, skeletons, demons, the "danse macabre" [dance of death] and other unpleasant figures.
"Hellmouth," Simon Marmion, 1475    

Etching, ca. 1360

To these mediaeval people, it seemed no one was immune from God's wrath. Poor people died as well as those of noble blood, such as Princess Joan who died en route to marry the future King of Castille.
Royal Library of Belgium

Even the men of God were not spared. This frightened the populace for two reasons: 1) The people saw that God failed to save those supposedly most faithful to God; and 2) The religious folk at the time were also the doctors. If even the doctors couldn't save the people, and prayer failed, what could be done?
Monks with plague, late 14th century illuminated manuscript

Mattias Grunewald, Bridgeman Art Library

The fears of the people shook them to their core, and were reflected in their art (and even personal hygiene - people stopped taking baths for a few centuries, because they felt that bathing opened the pores and allowed in the bad air). For a glance at the Black Death's effect on religion, go here.


  1. What silly people with ridiculous beliefs. All intellir people know that disease is caused by not eating enough Pat Robertson brand prayercakes.

  2. After a little "Black Death" research some years ago, I went on something of a "memento mori" kick, checking out the Renaissance fascination with death, their cultural attempt to embrace the horror and hold it close.

  3. I covered the Black Death with my Social Studies class about a month ago and was surprised at how well the textbook and supplemental materials did at discussing the art. Unfortunately, the students I have can barely read, much less have any desire to take a good look at the art. It's kind of sad how many cool things we could have done if I could only get them to move past their desire to copy down vocabulary defininitions so they can play cards.

    They joys of special education.