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Examples of post-plague paintings (click to enlarge)

The Consequence of the Great Plague on Art and Artists in the Middle Ages

How the Plague Shaped Art and Influenced Painters  in the Middle Ages
 The plague first hit western Europe in 1347. By 1351 it had wiped almost a third of the population of the known world. The horrors of the black death pervaded all aspects of Medieval culture and especially art. The effects were lasting, bringing a gloomy pessimism to visual art, literature, and music. The dreadful trauma of this era instigated the imaginations of writers and painters in frightful and dreadful 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 Hell, Satan and the Grim Reaper. People being boiled in caldrons, devoured by demonic creatures, chased down by devils and pulled into the horrors of hell, all became favorite themes of many painters.
 When the plague struck, Europe was emerging from the "dark ages"  trying to put unpleasant memories behind it and move on to a more free-thinking era. Barbarians no longer ran rough shod, killing innocent farmers and townsfolk. Beautiful cities such as Siena of Italy were establishing righteous republics and commissioning secular art.
 Without the constant fear of invasion and barbarity, 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  beset by the constant terror of death and suffering, causing them to look for answers in scripture and the Church. Many painters lost their entire extended family or half of them at the very least. It is difficulty for us to imagine sitting here surfing the internet just what it would be like to live through such a horrific tragedy. To lose all your loved ones in a matter of days. Survivors were often left with oozing sores that never healed and patches of missing hair that would never grow back, lungs so damaged that breathing would be a difficulty for the remainder of their life. It is no wonder that paintings overflowed with tortured souls, death, dying, fire and brimstone.
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 quickly burst, oozing a foul smelling liquid, aching limbs, and vomiting of blood. In the end the sufferer turned into an unrecognizable, misshapen hobgoblin. They died by the millions, alone in agony, their kinsmen fleeing in terror.  Government and Clergy tried to control the catastrophe by instituting quarantines, 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, flowers, fragrant oils and perfumes to ward off the deadly vapors that they believed to be causing the contamination. With so many bodies piling up, if nothing else the air smelled a bit better. It is a myth that people did not bathe in the Middle Ages, there were communal baths in almost every village. They did not bathe every day but most bathed weekly during the warmer months. People began airing out their linens and burning bedding used by the victims. This probably helped to staunch the death tide in a small way. Towns rang church bells, fired cannons and held parades where all the citizens paraded through the streets banging pots and pans to drive the plague away. Gypsies, heretics, foreign travelers, dwarfs and lepers were rounded up and put into wooden buildings 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. Some people believed that is you cut off a finger or toe the disease would spare you. Fingers and toes were lopped off by the thousands. 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..."

And then he sneezed.


Foremost Painters from the Middle Ages

Hieronymus Bosch

 Duccio di Buoninsegna 

Coppo di Marcovaldo

 Pietro Lorenzetti

Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Lippo Memmi

Simone Martini

Taddeo di Bartolo

 Matthias Grünewald

 Albrecht Dürer

 Lucas Cranach

Hans Holbein

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