11 March, 2021
Although it may be hard to imagine another scenario where the world was brought to a halt by an infectious disease, it’s important to remember that humankind’s history is far from being bereft of pandemics. In fact, the memory of past pandemics can even be found in contemporary culture; for example, the childhood rhyme Ring Around The Rosie is said to have arisen from the bubonic plague - the roses being a euphemism for round rashes on the skin caused by the disease. To understand how populations have dealt with pandemics and isolation, scholars have been looking to history, especially art history. What can art created in previous pandemics tell us about surmounting Covid-19? In an attempt to answer this, we’ve looked back at two of the most famous pandemics in history: the bubonic plague and the 1918 flu pandemic.
“At times of great crisis it is natural to look to the past for precedents.” - Tom Holland, quoted in The Times
The Bubonic Plague/ Black Death (1347)
Arriving on Europe’s shores in 1347, the Black Death was without a doubt one of the worst pandemics in history. It is said to have killed 25 to 50 million people in just five years, and is often cited as one of the worst case scenarios of an epidemic. Europe suffered tragic outbreaks of the Black death from 1347 until the late 17th-century; yet, while the effects were devastating, art during this time flourished.
Imagine being an artist at the time of the plague. One could guess that death would be a central theme throughout your work, in addition to despair, hopelessness, misery. And yet, when we look back at Renaissance art, it is surprising to see that, while death is ever-present in the imagery, there is a pervasive sense of optimism and hope. As Jonathan Jones writes of the artists of this time, “Far from being driven to despair by pestilence, it is as if they were spurred to assert the glory of life.”
While the Black Plague may be treatable today, medical practices against it at the time of its outbreak were unknown, and so, people turned to religion and faith for protection. Diseases and death were considered to be divine retribution for sins, and saints and priests were esteemed to be the only ones who could offer forgiveness and a cure. For this reason, much of the art from this time was full of religious symbolism and iconography.
In fact, the most frequently depicted saint during the course of the Late Gothic and Renaissance period was Saint Sebastian, who was believed to be the protector against the plague. Saint Sebastian was often depicted as being shot with arrows, which was considered to be his first martyrdom. The link between him and the plague is said to derive from the Greek myth of Apollo, who would sometimes destroy his enemies by shooting plague-ridden arrows at them, but simultaneously, was seen to be the deliverer from pestilence. The fact that Saint Sebastian was able to miraculously recover from his first martyrdom and escape death was seen as hopeful for many at a time when death was omnipresent.