The Effect of Plague on Art and Artists in the Middle Ages
How the Plague Influenced Painters and Art in the Middle AgesHaving no immunity and no
understanding that the rats scurrying around their studios were
carriers, the artists along with their neighbors dropped like flies. Back
in the 14th century basic sanitation did not exist. Thousands of
painters perished, including the great Sienese geniuses, Ambrogio Lorenzetti
The heart of the art world was torn open. The horrors of the
black death pervaded all aspects of Medieval culture and especially
art. Giovanni Boccaccio, Italian writer and poet who lived
through the plague, wrote "They sickened by the thousands daily, and
died unattended and without help. Many died in the open street, others
dying in their houses, made it known by the stench of their rotting
bodies. Consecrated churchyards did not suffice for the burial of the
vast multitude of bodies, which were heaped by the hundreds in vast
trenches, like goods in a ships hold and covered with a little earth."
The effects were lasting, bringing a somber darkness to visual art,
literature, and music. The dreadful trauma of this era instigated the
imaginations of writers and painters in frightful and gruesome ways for
decades to follow. The insecurity of daily survival created an
atmosphere of gloom and doom, influencing artist to move away from joyful spiritual themes and turn to images of the apocalypse, hell, satan and the grim reaper.
When the plague struck, Europe was emerging from the "dark
ages" trying to put unpleasant memories behind it and move on to
a more enlightened era. Barbarians no longer ran rough shod, putting
entire villages to the torch and slaughtering the local peasants.
Without the constant fear of invasion, art and architecture found
fertile ground to grow. Medieval painters were not simply
anonymous lowly craftsmen, but well respected professionals. They were
held in high esteem and often interacted with clergy and wealthy
patrons. The arrival of Black death harkened in a new darker era
of painting. Artists were tormented by the constant menace
of death, causing them to look for answers in scripture and the Church.
Paintings overflow with tortured souls, death, dying, fire and
What was the Plague?
Bubonic plague is a bacillus, an organism, most often carried by
infested rats who were plague-ridden with fleas. The infected
fleas, seeking a new blood meal jumped off their rodent hosts and leapt
onto a human, biting their new victim causing infection.
Symptoms of the Plague
Symptoms include swelling of the lymph nodes, high fevers, large
blackish pustules that soon burst and ooze a foul liquid, aching limbs,
and vomiting of blood. Finally the victim became an unrecognizable,
grotesque monster. The died by the millions, alone in agony, their
kinsmen fleeing in terror. Government and Clergy tried to
control the catastrophe, but the disease progressed relentlessly,
eventually killing off a substantial segment of Europe's population.
Preventing the Plague
Many believed that the disease was spread upon the air, So, the
survivors turned to incense, fragrant oils and perfumes to ward off the
deadly vapors that they believed to be causing the infection. With so
many bodies piling up, if nothing else the air smelled a bit better.
Towns rang church bells and held parades where all the citizens paraded
through the streets banging pots and pans to drive the plague away.
Gypsies, Jews, foreign travelers, and lepers were rounded up and put
into wooden building and roasted alive as they were believed to
be the carriers of the disease. Medieval entrepreneurs made a fortune
selling talismans, lucky charms and enchantments. Peasants who could
not afford such luxuries simply wore a necklace of garlic around their
necks or crushed herbs in their pockets. People were frantic for a
remedy and would try anything, no matter how peculiar or bizarre.
Life in the Middle Ages
In the Medieval period, people concentrated mainly on the church, God,
and personal salvation. Life in Medieval Europe was primitive and far
more difficult than that of Imperial Rome. The Average life
expectancy was only 30. Christianity provided an ethical
element lacking in previous cultures.
A song about the Plague from the Middle Ages
"A sickly season," the merchant said,
"The town I left was filled with dead,
and everywhere these queer red flies
crawled upon the corpses' eyes,
eating them away."
"Fair make you sick," the merchant said,
"They crawled upon the wine and bread.
Pale priests with oil and books,
bulging eyes and crazy looks,
dropping like the flies."
"I had to laugh," the merchant said,
"The doctors purged, and dosed, and bled;
"And proved through solemn disputation
"The cause lay in some constellation.
"Then they began to die."
"First they sneezed," the merchant said,
"And then they turned the brightest red,
Begged for water, then fell back.
With bulging eyes and face turned black,
they waited for the flies."
"I came away," the merchant said,
"You can't do business with the dead.
"So I've come here to ply my trade.
"You'll find this to be a fine brocade..."
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