Art in the time of plague

With the order to close museums and galleries as well as other public spaces, a little like a 16th-century closing of the playhouses against the plague which saw theatrical companies tour the provinces to maintain their revenue streams, what is there for an arts fan to do?


You could watch some design and architecture documentaries for free.

You can also stream theatre online, visit galleries and national parks in virtual reality tours, stream performances recorded at the Globe theatre (whose historical predecessor has seen this all before!), or, as I have been, you can explore music you’ve never gotten around to listening to before, and discover new artists and labels, giving them more of your money than they would receive under the Spotify model. You can take a virtual tour of the Paris Catacombs, and the BBC have announced “Culture Under Quarantine”.

Then there’s:

And finally there’s ArtString App, which I’ve written about extensively before, just about tailor-made for this situation. Not only can you explore the online versions of collections via this app, you can also create your own tours and treasure trails and share them with friends to keep them entertained.

A collection that’s a little larger and broader can be found at Fuck Yeah, St Sebastian; focused on cataloguing all the representations of St Sebastian that are available. Why this particular saint, at this particular junction?

Often represented alongside the saints Roche and Demetrius, this 4th century purported Praetorian under the twin rule of Diocletian and Maximian is often invoked alongside them as a protection against the plague. You’ll note there are kind of a lot of saints invoked for this purpose, and that’s because outbreaks of various agues, plagues, and fevers were even more deadly a feature of life in medieval and Renaissance cities than they are now. After a while, of course, the saint moved away from his original designation as proof against plague and during the course of the Renaissance in particular he evolved from his position as a contorted pincushion for aggressive archers and into a swooning pinup who is, as Daniel Ortberg notes, surprisingly unconcerned about his grisly fate. In some instances he’s finished being martyred for the first time and is getting some rest before he goes off and rushes back off to have another crack at declaiming his faith, and gets killed properly this time. The thankless role of St Irene in nursing this hot-head back to health after his arrowing is less frequently recorded, but one can say the same of pretty much all of women’s contributions to history.

The unjustly persecuted beautiful young man repeatedly penetrated had already, unsurprisingly, been established for nearly a century as an unofficial gay icon by the time of the AIDS crisis, when he was badly in need by the community who had adopted him as their own.

So we have a saint–well, several–to be invoked against plague. But how is sickness typically depicted in art? As “art” is a broad scope, I’ll aim to limit this to the kind of art that appears in the National Gallery and the British Museum, which still, for better or for worse, represents a broad swathe of options for talking about plagues.

The most notable presentations of plague aren’t so much documentary records of the experiences of the painters, but biblical topics. Since the Church was for centuries just about the only patron of the arts, and any lesser patron normally trying to suck up to the Church as well, it makes perfect sense for the topic to be covered only through the lens of various biblical scenes.

The Ten Plagues of Egypt (for those of us who don’t know much about biblical history, here’s a quick summary) feature repeatedly including by such luminaries as British artist Turner, and would probably count as a pointed reminder to citizens, particularly the powerful ones who might otherwise be getting Ideas, that the authority of God (meaning the Church) was not to be trifled with. Reminders in the form of real-life epidemics were only too common in crowded and successful Renaissance cities like Venice and Florence; person-to-person transmissible diseases didn’t have far to travel, and with no understanding of germ theory, there wasn’t much to contradict the narrative of “God is angry with you” as the real source of a sudden outbreak.

A similar response, right at the beginning of modernity, comes in the form of Nicolas Poussin’s The Plague At Ashdod.

The painting by Poussin depicts a chaos of mourning citizens of some city modelled on classical antiquity, with the realistically-rendered corpses of plague victims in the centre foreground
The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin, 1630

Poussin, many of whose works are on display at the National Gallery in London (or will be, when the gallery is reopened), was a “history painter”; that is, he imagined scenes from classical antiquity and the bible and rendered them in an often slightly dreamlike semi-real landscape, bringing satyrs, nymphs, and the wilderness-locked Israelites to a sensual reality among stereotypes of trees and a kind of cod-Campagna. He also painted the above while in Rome, 1628-1630–overlapping heavily with a time that the plague ravaged the Italian peninsula (1629-1631), which had some considerable impact on the veracity, both visual and emotional, of the painting.

Depicting a 1 Samuel 5:6,7 scene not often given much attention by artists before, Poussin addressed the story of God leaving the Philistine of Ashdod stricken with tumors as divine retribution for the capture of the Ark of the Covenant; buboes, the swollen and painful signature symptom of the plague, have a striking thematic similarity.

After Poussin’s cataclysmic treatment of the outbreak (and the implied remedy: obey god, i.e. the Church, more fully), a variety of reinterpretations of the painting sprang up, one of which is on display at the National Gallery (or will be on display again, at some point, when the world is slightly less chaotic).

Angelo Caroselli, 1631

As you can see, it’s a pretty good copy of the original, and made while the plague was still raging. Why make an exact copy of a painting? Well, in a time before the invention of photography and other methods of faithful visual recording, how else could the same picture be viewed by two different enthusiasts in the same place at the same time? Copying masters–or indeed, contemporaries–was also encouraged as a way to hone artistic skills, as it still is today.

But this is where the story becomes stranger. The original painting was commissioned from Nicolas Poussin by the somewhat dodgy businessman Fabrizio Valguarnera. Its copy, completed almost immediately afterwards by Caroselli, also resident in Rome at the time, was commissioned by none other than… Fabrizio Valguarnera.  Perhaps he had two houses he wished to decorate identically. Maybe he had plans for defrauding someone with an “original”. Certainly, as the source of his fee for the original came from the spoils of a jewel heist, he was far from above breaking the law.

More in-depth analysis of the painting’s construction can be found at the National Gallery’s own site.

In the aftermath of contemporary plagues, the horrors retained their fascination after the passage of their immediate effects. Book illustrations speak in some sense to raking over the coals of an old conflagration: 1665 must have seemed distant enough to analyse by the early 18th century, much as mid-century strife seems a world away now, in the 21st.

So much for the English. French artists, as we have already observed, were a little edgier:

La Peste dans la ville de Marseille en 1720, Jean François de Troy (original), Simon Thomassin (print), Gaspard Duchange (publisher), 1727

This 1727 print reproduces a work by a French artist which describes a near-contemporaneous event–the last great outbreak of bubonic plague in European history, to date. Then again, while this particular plague was a recent wound to the people of France, killing around 100,000 of them, it may not have cut as deep a psychic injury as the 1665 Great London Plague did in the minds of the English (or at least those of them that lived in and around the nation’s capital); Marseille was already back on its feet and recovering by the time the print was made, whereas London was burned to the ground the following year!

The treatment of plague was also addressed (as you’d imagine, people were pretty hot on the idea of finding the most effective way of ending an epidemic, and rumours and quackery flew about just as virulently as the infection, the same way that they do now), and the aesthetic of many familiar video games and costumes, for example, owes a lot to depictions of 16th and 17th-century plague doctors, such as in this famous, anonymous print:

L’Habito con il quale vanno i Medici per Roma…, 1656

Precautionary measures, as laid out in the below etching of plague in Rome by G. G. di Rossi, from the Wellcome Collection‘s archives, also involved curfew, house arrest, and measures somewhat more extreme than our own current regimen of social distancing: in the fourteenth century bubonic plague epidemic which killed an eye-watering 60% of Europe’s population and left a lasting impact on the continent’s culture, the houses of those infected in Milan were simply boarded up and the infected left to die, regardless of the severity of their symptoms. Thank god we have contactless delivery services now!

Etching of plague in Rome, G. G. di Rossi (1656); Wellcome Collection

After the passage of the most virulent outbreaks of plague, other epidemics continued to flourish, like cholera, heavily associated with urban areas as the bacteria which cause it flourish in water contaminated with human faeces–and in cities with inadequate sewage provision or separation of sewage from drinking water, outbreaks occurred again and again (one of these, the infamous London cholera outbreak of 1854 which centred on Soho’s Broad Street, led to the birth of modern epidemiology–the study of disease outbreaks in populations. The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson is a vivid, engaging and accessible introduction to the incident and to the future of disease in urban areas).

Large groups of people were, are, and always will be vectors for human-to-human transmission of opportunistic diseases, and in an ever-more-connected world with a rapidly-changing environment bringing us into contact with animal species that have their own potential zoonoses (animal-to-person transmissible illnesses), outbreaks of novel illness are something we’ll have to get used to.

Artists continue to respond to the impact of epidemics upon their lives and communities. The AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s (although to suggest that the risk has ended is a dangerous omission, as while HIV is a manageable diagnosis rather than a death sentence it is still a life-changing infection) gutted populations around the world and continues to destroy communities to this day. Because it is a primarily sexually-transmitted disease, it has historically been associated with shame and disgust and pariah status in a manner comparable with medieval depictions of lepers (leprosy was falsely believed to be considerably more contagious than it actually is).

Exclusion, suffering, shame, and a deadly epidemic created a communal pain which found its expression through art, such as this 1984 (printed in 1990) block print by Eric Avery, which depicts on the eternal symbol of the deathshead a few of the symptoms of later-stage AIDS, such as KS lesions, caused by opportunistic infections affecting a depleted immune system:

1984 AIDS, Eric Avery, 1990/2010. More information can be found in the British Museum catalogue entry for this work.

The recurring nature of epidemics in human populations means that any would-be soothsayers (people who predict the future) and visionaries, such as British artist, poet, and print-maker William Blake, can score an easy success with an accurate prediction that there will be terrible plagues upon humanity in the coming years. Certainly Blake’s prediction of plague, as in his 1794 work, Europe: A Prophecy, can hardly be said to be inaccurate: the oppressive environmental and demographic changes brought to his native country by the onset of industrialism (as decried in his famous poem, And did those feet in ancient time, as “dark satanic mills”) continued to create new and miserable health conditions for much of the population, as well as exporting British diseases to more and more distant climates and more and more unprepared populations abroad.

What Blake did not successfully predict, because it would surely have seemed hubristic to the point of blasphemy at the close of the 18th century, was that progress in inoculation against smallpox (represented by Edward Jenner’s snuff box in the linked string) made in that self-same century would blossom into a full scale assault on and eventual defeat of the disease in the 20th–one of humanity’s finest collaborative achievements has been to completely eradicate a disease specific to our species.

But it is not only science which plays a part in humanity’s response to epidemics. Psychological strength is often bolstered by faith, and no one was more aware of this than the Church of Rome, during the many and varied outbreaks of illness in the Italian peninsula in particular. Saints were needed by a population accustomed to sending prayers for help to the correct divine intercessors, and there must have been thousands of very fervent prayers sent up during the worst of the 14th century bubonic plague, otherwise known evocatively as the Black Death.

St Roche, overlooked often in favour of the homoerotically pleasing St Sebastian, was one of the saints invoked against plague. Martyred in 1327, the healer saint’s death preceded the coming plague of 1347; he is often depicted as lifting his tunic to display his bare thigh. Rather than coquettish, this gesture symbolises the birthmark by which the people of his town knew his body to be his after five years of imprisonment.

Saint Roch (from S.Maria della Scala, Verona), Paolo Morando, 1518

This depiction of Saint Roch, as so many depictions of saints invoked against the plague, was linked with deliverance from a specific outbreak of the disease, in this instance the 1510-1512 plague in Verona. And as with the Ortolano work referenced at the start of this article, this panel was originally paired with St Sebastian, a double ward against a recurrence of the pestilence.

Whether as a psychological strengthener, a form of catharsis, or simply distraction from boredom or fear, during quarantine and its variants we need art more than ever. In the first post on this blog, I talked about futureproofing museum and gallery collections against catastrophes such as the devastating fire at Brazil’s national museum. I talked about the certainty of extremes of weather and possibility of flooding archives and collections, and solutions such as digitisation and multi-locational storage.

To that list, it seems we now have to add the question of how we protect museums and galleries economically from the devastation caused by government-required quarantine and closure, and the likely recession that results in a consumer society when consumers are forced to stop consuming, to stop visiting: how does a public institution account for footfall when no one is allowed to walk in the galleriesHow will the enforced absence of visitors affect the future of cultural institutions? 

These questions cannot be answered right away. Fortunately what we do have plenty of at the moment, without as many other distractions, is time to think about where we go from here, and what we do to mitigate the impact of future transmissible illness in galleries and museums, because this is not a one-time problem.


If you are socially distancing, under self-isolation, or in quarantine, I wish you all the best; if you are sick (either with coronavirus or any other acute illness) then I wish you a speedy recovery and as mild symptoms as possible, and if you are able to and have enjoyed this article, I ask that you consider dropping a donation at my ko-fi.

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