Paintings and Pandemics - Part I, The Black Death

March 29, 2020
Paintings and Pandemics - Part I, The Black Death

I debated whether it would be appropriate to do a blog about art’s relationship with disease and death – after all we are still in the foothills of the Covid-19 crisis, and nobody yet knows how serious the pandemic will be and how many will be affected.


Yet these are the times when art can be at its most powerful and most important.  I’ve written a lot about how the tragedy of war is immortalised in paint, and how some of the most moving works of art depict times of crisis, and often of death. It remains to be seen how artists will deal with the current crisis, but I have no doubt that some really meaningful works will be produced as the situation develops.


Human history is full of examples of our frailty in the face of nature and art depicts these sometimes sensitively, sometimes brutally. This is not just in paint – think of some of the most famous works of literature. H G Wells’ War of the Worlds depicts humanity’s powerlessness against invaders from Mars, but these seemingly omnipotent invaders are defeated by bacteria, dying through disease.  Here, the bacteria are our protectors, not our enemies. There is a beautifully written paragraph at the end of the novel:


For so it had come about, as indeed I and many men might have foreseen had not terror and disaster blinded our minds. These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many those that cause putrefaction in dead matter, for instance our living frames are altogether immune. But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable. By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.


In the history of the human race, it's generally accepted that the three pandemics to have caused most human death were the Black Death, Spanish Flu and AIDS, and I’ll write a separate blog looking at how art was influenced by each of these crises.


Here, we’ll briefly look at the Black Death, which peaked in Europe in the mid-14th Century and devasted the World, whose main population centres were Europe and Asia. It’s estimated that somewhere between 75 million and 200 million died in Eurasia as a result of the disease. To put those figures into context, the bubonic plague was estimated to have killed between 30% and 60% of Europe’s entire population, and it took Europe another 200 years to recover its population level. If replicated on the same scale today, the death toll across the world would be 2 billion souls. 


In fact, bubonic plague cast a shadow over Europe for the next three centuries – the last major outbreak in the UK was known as the Great Plague of London in 1665/66, which is estimated to have killed a quarter of London’s population over an 18-month period. Samuel Pepys, famous for his diaries, lived in London at this time and provided an invaluable first-hand record of life in London, and of the impact of the Great Plague. For example, he wrote on 31 August 1665:


Up, and after putting several things in order to my removal to Woolwich, the plague having a great increase this week beyond all expectation, of almost 2000 - making the general Bill 7000, odd 100 and the plague above 6000 ....


Thus this month ends, with great sadness upon the public through the greateness of the plague, everywhere through the Kingdom almost. Every day sadder and sadder news of its increase. In the City died this week 7496; and all of them, 6102 of the plague. But it is feared that the true number of the dead this week is near 10000 - partly from the poor that cannot be taken notice of through the greatness of the number, and partly from the Quakers and others that will not have any bell ring for them.


As to myself, I am very well; only, in fear of the plague, and as much of an Ague, by being forced to go early and late to Woolwich, and my family to lie there continually.


The continuous stalking of the Plague across Europe heavily influenced art – there was a trend towards realism, and images of death, the afterlife and the impotence of man in the face of forces greater than he could comprehend, were frequent. But there were also explosions of creativity and hope. The whole of the Renaissance - the rebirth in Europe of culture, art, politics and economy - took place in the shadow of the Plague. All of the Old Masters in art were painting at this time and many of them died from it.  Hans Holbein the Younger (c1543), Titian (c1576), and Anthony Van Dyck (c1641) are three of the better-known names who are believed to have perished from the disease.


A whole new genre in art was created – that of the Danse Macabre, which created some darkly humorous works. The Dance of Death (as it is known in English) is an allegory around the fact that death awaits all of us, no matter our station in life.  It typically features a personification of death – often a skeleton – summoning humans to dance towards the grave. These artworks depicted people from all walks of life, even the rich and noble could not escape the pestilence of the Black Death.


The most famous images of this time are perhaps the series of woodcuts by the aforementioned Hans Holbein the Younger, the sketches for which were made in 1526, and the first book edition – containing 41 woodcuts – was published in 1538.  In her 1956 work on the subject, the historian Natalie Zemon Davis wrote: "Holbein's pictures are independent dramas in which Death comes upon his victim in the midst of the latter's own surroundings and activities. This is perhaps nowhere more strikingly captured than in the wonderful blocks showing the plowman earning his bread by the sweat of his brow only to have his horses speed him to his end by Death.


However, there is one painting that I have selected as the best representation of this period. It is The Triumph of Death by the Dutch artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Painted in c1562, it is housed in Madrid’s Prado Museum.


The picture is a large one – approximately 4 feet by 5 feet – containing a huge amount of detail. Every look at this picture contains a new horror However, the principal thrust is this – it depicts an army of skeletons wreaking havoc over a bleak and barren landscape and herding humanity to their deaths and into a large coffin. There are images of death everywhere, and people of all walks of life are depicted – no-one is safe. There is no joy or hope in this painting. Death, through the army of skeletons, is seen as remorseless and indefatigable (just as were HG Wells’ Martians).

It is truly terrifying.


Yet there is some hope, although it’s not to be found in the picture itself. Instead, it’s in the fact that the work has survived now for nearly half a millennium, and we are still talking about it (and all being well will be able to resume visiting it in the near future). In fact The Triumph of Death was recently extensively restored and redisplayed. The Prado typically receives almost 3 million visitors per year – just think of the number of people who have seen this painting over the years.

Death will triumph over all of us at some point, the only question is how and when. We are ephemeral, but I find it somehow reassuring that we are capable of creating objects that survive through the centuries. We are, in a sense, defying the Danse Macabre, by what we leave behind.


About the author

Richard Pulford

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