Art is often the first place to reflect what is happening in society and this has been the case for hundreds of years. At the time of the plague in the 14th century the people in Europe were under a huge strain. The ruthless disease swept across the continent, leaving death and devastation in its wake. With no real understanding of where this disease had come from, people turned to their faith for answers. Many considered it to be a punishment from God, for living a life of sin. Many tried to repent for their sins. This desperation to encourage the search for salvation is reflected in several paintings of the era, depicting processions of people following clergymen in an effort to bring about respect for the importance of religious rituals in the path to a more ‘holy’ life. Exemplified by the religious mural “Procession of Saint Gregory”, ca. 1300, Musee Conde, Chantilly.
As the years went by and attitudes became more cynical artists moved away from religious iconography in favour of recording the horror happening around them. A shift towards a more realistic style also became more common, with artists documenting graphic scenes of sufferers and the dead lain in the street. Symbolism of and the personification of death in art also became far more common. A good example of this is the painting “Plague” by Arnold Böcklin which depicts death as a grotesque corpse-like figure sweeping through the streets, infecting people with a giant scorpion-like sting.
As people were forced to consider the fragility of life and their own mortality some turned to repentance while others turned their attention to an extravagant funeral and burial. An example of this is Displayed in the Saint-Étienne church in Bar-le-Duc, France; the figure of René de Chalon, Prince of Orange. He died in battle in 1544, aged 25. Believed to be at his own request an effigy was placed on his tomb; a life-size, skeleton figure, with rotting flesh flapping from the rib cage and the left hand extended high, clutching his (yes, real) heart. This grand decoration, sculpted by Ligier Richier, is known as a transi, literally translating as ‘stiff’, and became very fashionable between the 14th and 16th centuries. Some may regard it as an arrogant signature of self-importance, others may read it as a symbol of the transition from earthly body to spiritual enlightenment in an effort to surrender oneself to God.
Other popular styles that can be interpreted as springing directly from the haunting of the plague are omnia vanitas (translating as “all is vanity”) portraits, depicting figures, with death lurking in the reflection of a mirror or hiding behind a shoulder. This was intended to remind viewers of their own inescapable mortality and to symbolise the triumph of death over its naive victims. A second is the “The Dance of Death” or ‘dance macabre’. Based on folk superstition around Europe and progressing from performance, poetry and then painting, these images showed skeletons collecting the living and dancing them off to hell.
Despite society literally being plagued by this horrific disease, for the next 300 years art flourished. As well as portraying the darker side of life and confronting the themes of mortality and hell, there is also a strong theme of joyfulness, exuberance and the celebration of life running through Medieval art. Perhaps the constant threat of being struck by the pestilence spurred people to appreciate the brief and precious nature of life.
Ebenstein, J. (2015). Transi de René de Chalon. [online] Atlas Obscura. Available at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/transi-de-ren-de-chalon [Accessed 15 Sep. 2015].
Jones, J. (2012). Brush with the Black Death: how artists painted through the plague. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2012/feb/15/brush-black-death-artists-plague [Accessed 14 Sep. 2015].
Medrano-Cabral, S. (2015). The Influence of Plague on Art from the Late 14th to the 17th Century. [online] Entomology.montana.edu. Available at: http://entomology.montana.edu/historybug/YersiniaEssays/Medrano.htm [Accessed 14 Sep. 2015].
Danse macabre. (2015). [image] Available at: https://wandervogeldiary.wordpress.com/2014/10/31/danse-macabre/ [Accessed 15 Sep. 2015].
Wolgemut, M. (2015). The Dance of Death. [image] Available at: http://theyearofhalloween.com/2014/03/16/silent-sundays-the-dance-of-death-1493/ [Accessed 15 Sep. 2015].