Plague in Art: 10 Paintings You Should Know in the Times of Coronavirus

Zuzanna Stańska 9 March 2020 min Read

As the coronavirus is spreading around the globe we want to show you how artists depicted plague in art in times when plagues were really deadly.

I know it’s not comforting under current circumstances but actually, when you think about it, untreatable plagues were a regular part of human life for centuries. The medieval Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. It resulted in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351. 200 million!

The 1918 an influenza pandemic known as Spanish flu (present from January 1918 to December 1920) infected 500 million people around the world. This amounts to 27% of the world population at the time. The death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million. 100 million! And it happened only one hundred years ago.

Or take HIV/AIDS, it is estimated that since the beginning of the epidemic in 1980s 75 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and about 32 million people have died of it. There is no cure or vaccine for it yet, however antiretroviral treatments can slow the course of the disease and lead to a near-normal life expectancy. Still, close to 13,000 people with AIDS in the United States are dying each year. The peak of this pandemic happened only thirty years ago.

We don’t know yet what would be the final numbers of coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) pandemia. Since the outbreak began in December 2019, 108,000 cases have been identified and 3,666 deaths have been reported. Also, 61,000 people have fully recovered (as of March 8th). So, please clean your hands (according to WHO it is the best way to prevent the coronavirus) and get ready for a short ride through art history and masterpieces you should know about in the times of Coronavirus.

1. Tournai Citizens Burying the Dead During the Black Death, 14th century

Plague in art
The Citizens of Tournai, Belgium, Burying the Dead During the Black Death of 1347-52. Detail of a miniature from The Chronicles of Gilles Li Muisis (1272-1352), abbot of the monastery of St. Martin of the Righteous, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, MS 13076-77, f. 24v.

In the time of the Black Death (1347 to 1351) themes such as skeletons, death, and the Dance of Death were very common in culture and especially art. There is no surprise here, it’s estimated that more than 30% of the European population died in the epidemic. In some cities, such as Venice, up to 60% of the inhabitants died. Also half of Paris’s population of 100,000 people died. Giovanni Bocaccio in his Decameron (1353) wrote:

“In men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg … From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, now minute and numerous. As the gavocciolo had been and still was an infallible token of approaching death, such also were these spots on whomsoever they showed themselves.”

Giovanni Bocaccio, Decameron, 1353.

Following this victims developed an acute fever and started vomiting blood. Most victims died two to seven days after initial infection.

Contemporary reports tell of mass burial pits dug in response to the large numbers of dead. Before 1350 there were about 170,000 settlements in Germany. By 1450 this number dropped by nearly 40,000 due to the Black Death. In this miniature we see how the citizens of Tournai, Belgium were burying the dead en masse. There are fifteen mourners and nine coffins all crammed into the small space. Interestingly the face of each mourner is given individual attention, each conveys genuine sorrow, and even more genuine fear.

2. Giacomo Borlone de Burchis, The Triumph of Death with The Dance of Death, 15th century

Giacomo Borlone de Burchis, The Triumph of Death with The Dance of Death, 15th century, Oratorio dei Disciplini in Clusone, Italy

The horror of the Black Death had another unexpected effect, very dark humor. The plague was often seen through a macabre and grim lens. The theme of The Dance of Death (Danse Macabre) is a great example of this. The earliest known appearances of it were in story-poems that told about encounters between the living and the dead. Most often the living characters were proud and powerful members of society, such as knights and bishops. The dead interrupted their procession: “As we are, so shall you be” was the underlying message, “and neither your strength nor your piety can provide escape”.

Clusone’s Dance of Death is a part of The Triumph of Death scene. It shows several characters from different social classes walking with skeletons to join the fatal dance of death. In The Triumph of Death Death itself is represented as a crowned skeleton queen swinging scrolls in both her hands. She has two fellow skeletons at her sides killing people with a bow and an ancient arquebus. Around her a group of powerful but desperate people are offering valuables and begging for mercy. Death is not interested in their mundane wealth however, she only wants their lives. Beneath her feet is a marble coffin where the corpses of an emperor and a pope lie surrounded by poisonous animals, symbols of a fast and merciless end.

3. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Triumph of Death, c. 1562

plague in art
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Triumph of Death, c. 1562, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

We are not in the Middle Ages anymore but The Triumph of Death by Flemish Renaissance master Pieter Bruegel the Elder with a very deadly swing shows how the Black Death could look like in an average European town. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but an army of skeletons wreaking havoc across a blackened, desolate landscape makes a huge impression to this day. 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.

4. Paulus Furst of Nuremberg, Doctor Schnabel von Rom, 1656

Plague in art
Paulus Furst of Nuremberg, Doctor Schnabel von Rom, 1656, British Museum, London.

The Black Death was more than a medieval horror, it kept coming back. For more than the next 300 years the plague became a regular part of everyday life in Europe. Terrible outbreaks periodically devastated cities. Look at this this way, the whole story of Europe between 14th to the late 17th century was constantly marked by the plague. Some great artists, probably including Hans Holbein and Titian, died of it. Meanwhile others tried to fight it with art, like Tintoretto. He painted his greatest works in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, a building dedicated to a plague-protective saint. Death from the plague was a regular part of human life at the time.

In this etching we see a protective costume used in France and Italy in the 17th century. It terrified people because it was a sign of imminent death. It consisted of an ankle-length overcoat, a bird-like beaked mask, along with gloves, boots, a wide-brimmed hat, and another over-clothing garment. The mask had glass openings in the eyes and a curved beak shaped face with straps that held the beak in front of the doctor’s nose. The mask also had two small nose holes and was a type of early respirator which held sweet or strong smelling substances (usually lavender). The beak could also hold dried flowers, herbs, spices, camphor, or a vinegar sponge too. The purpose of the mask was to keep away bad smells, known as miasma, which were thought to be the primary cause of the disease. Germ theory later disproved this.

5. Arnold Böcklin, Plague, 1898

Plague in art
Arnold Böcklin, Plague, 1898, Kunstmuseum Basel.

Plague exemplified Arnold Böcklin’s obsession with nightmares of war, pestilence, and death. Böcklin was a Symbolist and here his personification of Death rides on 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. Although there is no straightforward, visible evidence of Indian inspiration (Symbolists always used as ambiguous and universal symbols as possible) Böcklin created a scene that the creators of the Game of Thrones would not be ashamed of.

6. Egon Schiele, The Family, 1918

Egon Schiele, The Family, 1918, Belvedere, Vienna.

The 20th century brought two World Wars, the Holocaust, unimaginable atrocities, and the Spanish Flu. The horrific scale of this pandemic is hard to fathom. The virus infected 500 million people worldwide and killed an estimated 100 million victims. For perspective that’s more than all of the soldiers and civilians killed during World War I combined.

It had symptoms of a normal flu: fever, nausea, aches and diarrhea. Many developed severe pneumonia as well. Also dark spots would appear on the cheeks and patients would turn blue, suffocating from a lack of oxygen as their lungs filled with a frothy, bloody substance. Unlike a typical flu where the highest mortality is in infants and the elderly, the 1918 flu also struck down young, healthy adults.

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. In it we see Schiele himself with his wife Edith and their unborn child. In his last letter he described his concern for her writing “Dear Mother Schiele, Edith got the Spanish Flu eight days ago and has pneumonia. She is six months pregnant. The disease is very serious and life-threatening; I am preparing myself for the worst”. Edith died of Spanish flu in the 6th month of her pregnancy. Three days after she died Egon did too.

7. Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait after Spanish Influenza, 1919

Plague in art
Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait After Spanish Influenza, 1919, Oslo, at the National Gallery.

Among other famous artists who died of the Spanish flu were Gustav Klimt, Amadeo de Souza Cardoso, and Niko Pirosmani. Spoiler Alert: 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 we see here, Munch’s hair is thin, his complexion is jaundiced, and he is wrapped in a dressing gown and blanket.

By the summer of 1919, the flu pandemic had come to an end. Those that were infected had either died or had developed immunity.

8. Keith Haring, Ignorance = Fear 1989

Keith Haring, Ignorance = Fear, 1989, Poster Collection Noirmontartproduction, Paris.

In the 1980s and early 1990s the outbreak of HIV and AIDS swept across the United States and rest of the world. The disease originated decades earlier though. Today, over 70 million people have been infected with HIV and about 35 million have died from AIDS since the start of the epidemic. The virus is transmitted through bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal fluids, anal fluids, and breast milk. In 1980s the public considered AIDS a “gay disease”, it was even called the “gay plague” for many years. Historically HIV spread from person to person through unprotected sex, sharing of needles for drug use, and through birth.

Keith Haring designed and executed this poster in 1989 after he was diagnosed with AIDS the previous year. In 1989 one American was diagnosed with HIV every minute and four people died of AIDS every hour. By 1991 the epidemic had claimed the lives of 100,000 Americans. 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. The state of information about AIDS/HIV in United States 1980s was truly horrendous. At the time disinformation was common, the American government’s response to what was happening was shamefully inadequate, and the medicines and medical care were extremely expensive. People infected with HIV were left by themselves.

Keith Haring died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31.

9. David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Falling Buffalos), 1988-1989

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Falling Buffalos), 1988-1989, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

David Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (Falling Buffalos) is one of the artist’s best-known works and perhaps one of the most haunting artistic responses to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. In this photo-montage we see a herd of buffalo falling off a cliff to their deaths. The falling buffalos evoke feelings of doom and hopelessness, making the work extremely powerful and provocative. 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 nineteenth century. It reminds viewers of the neglect and marginalization that characterized the politics of HIV/AIDS at the time. You can read how he manifested his outrage in the times of HIV/AIDS pandemic here.

Wojnarowicz died of HIV/AIDS in 1992.

Here’s a full list of our “Lockdown” home entertainment articles. Stay safe and #Stayhome!

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Plague in Art: 10 Paintings You Should Know in the Times of Coronavirus

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