Living through a pandemic seems like a surreal idea until you’ve lived through one. Then it’s too real. You don’t believe in it until it hits you or someone close to you. Once in a lifetime is far too frequent. Fortunately, few people suffer more than one plague in a lifetime, yet in times of resistant super-viruses, the idea is not out of mind.
The present COVID epidemic is more insidious than the Black Death or Smallpox plagues, when people reeled, wretched, and fell dead in the street, to be collected and unceremoniously heaped on to a wagon and cremated or stacked in a mass burial. In other words, COVID has less visibility, as people are quarantining, or stowed away in hospitals. It’s also a matter of scale: in the large scheme of things, COVID mortality rates haven’t approached historical tallies.
This being the case many people take a cavalier approach to vigilance in the present pandemic: what they can’t see won’t hurt them. The fake or inaccurate news reporting skews reality and inversely affects the mass acquisition and hoarding of toilet paper.
No plague was so shattering as the Bubonic (Yersinia pestis) Black Death, or Great Mortality, of 1347 — 51, for which it is estimated anywhere from 75–200 million souls perished, or 30–60% of the population of Europe. There were no first-responders, health care heroes, PPE, or even proper burial — all were either burned, or thrown into the river with a stone tied round the neck (see Bruegel, below).
The threat of plague was much greater in the Middle Ages, and it was more frequent, thus it was less surreal. The plagues have been dramatically — albeit on a small scale — captured in paintings, since at least the 14th century, and finally in photographs, since the late 1800’s. In that time we can track the perception, attitude, and beliefs that pervaded those cultures, from fairly cynical and tragic, to empathetic and pitying, or from the Old Testament (OT) to the New Testament will of God.
This Black Death manuscript above is emblematic of fourteenth-century traditions that denoted the concept of a cantankerous and wrathful Old Testament God punishing sinful mankind. This plate represents angels of death bringing pestilence, misfortune, and death down upon mankind. The arrows are merely symbolic of God’s anger and punishment, and refer metaphorically to both the Old Testament, as well as Greek myth. People of the fourteenth-century believed that God d sent the plague in a redemptive act of love.
The illuminated manuscript above depicts the revenge of the Israelite upon Pharaoh — one of ten OT plagues — God’s punishment of Egypt for the enslavement of the Israelite, as recounted in Exodus. Pharaoh and two courtiers pick away at their sores, as a trio of dogs lick their festering buboes, or boils — the uppermost animal appears to be infested with fleas. The plague carrying fleas were carried by black rats along the Silk Road and by water, from Asia into Europe.
Poussin’s seventeenth-century baroque ‘The Plague at Ashdod’ depicts the Philistines suffering God’s wrath after having captured the Ark of the Covenant (frontispiece, upper left) from the Israelite, and his destruction of their false idol (top left). Rats wander the killing field, spreading the pestilence. At the time it was painted, the plague was still moving swiftly through Rome and Italy.
The above Bruegel describes a traditional danse macabre — death represented by an army of skeletons, destroying the immoral world of the living, driving them into a giant coffin, and dispatching them with every gruesome conceivable cruelty. Every social group is represented, and no one is spared— even the unknowing lovers at lower right will eventually perish. Townspeople cower underneath a carriage (left), as if that would offer them protection. A skeleton wields an hour-glass, measuring out the end of the king’s life. The motif follows the moralizing treatments of Hieronymous Bosch’s ‘Judgement Day,’ and ‘Garden of Eden,’ with their epic processions, and plethora of unworldly metaphors and paraphernalia, each and every symbolic of some larger connotation.
However, by the sixteenth-century, more humanistic treatments began to emerge, as evident in art and literature of that period, and the rise of Protestantism. In this Raimondi engraving, compassion for the afflicted is shown in the faces and gestures of those who tend to them, even so, the caregivers can’t help but reel away and vomit in repulsion. A man reaching to take a baby away from his dead mother was a motif found in other treatments of the subject (see Poussin above). The sick are no longer judged as sinful, but rather — deserving of God’s empathy through pity, not destruction. The plague is now represented as indiscriminately taking the moral and immoral, poor and rich, old and young alike — even their animals. It’s no longer perceived as punishment from above, but below.
Dore was nineteenth-century illustrator whose classical engravings were ubiquitous. He completed entire folios of The Bible, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, as well as Greco-Roman themes. The above panel — the ‘Plague of Darkness’ — is one of ten plagues he engraved. Nile crocodiles and a lion rise up to gnaw on the deceased or soon to be. Save for the falling temple, there is little iconography or metaphor found, only simple — even mundane treatment of the human form.
A nineteenth-century samurai general— Minamoto No Tametomo — resisting two smallpox, or red-plague demons — variola minor and major. In this case, there is no visible devastation, and the general is presumed victorious. A vanquished demon lies expired with an arrow through it. The master archer was said to have sunk a ship with a single arrow. If so, why did he not sink the plague carrying ships making for Europe? The virus was a perennial affliction in old Japan. The last known smallpox case was 1977. The ‘great-pox,’ was of course — syphilis.
Munch once recalled “Illness, insanity, and death … kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.” Having lost is mother and sister to tuberculosis when he was five, he was to portray the agony and suffering of their plight in his paintings. He was personalizing suffering, a topic that was ever-present in his work.
Munch, who perished soon after the Spanish Flu epidemic, paints himself as he may have appeared close to death, his mouth gasping for air, bringing to mind his better known ‘The Scream.’ The theme was unusual in that few artists were making any statements about the epidemic, concentrating more on the War: the epidemic thus held little cultural legacy. However, in representing the angst of modern civilization into expression, he was influenced by his contemporaries Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, and Gauguin.
Munch was unhappy his entire life, and this inner darkness was frequently manifest in his many expressionist woodcuts, paintings, and prints, thus was it not surprising to see his heart-wrenching self-portraits. At the time, they were considered ‘symbolic’ art. He became fixated on evil and decadence, which were prevailing themes of post WWI times, reflective of the nihilism of the era.
This expressionist painting of Schiele and his family would not be completed before the family’s death from Spanish Flu, in 1919. He was twenty-eight. The zombie-like toddler at his mother’s feet was never born — merely a phantasm or avatar—a placeholder. Schiele may have perished within days of contracting the illness, as was not uncommon.
The tortured expressions, ravaged bodies with sickly translucent skin, emphasized suffering in a brutally honest and humanistic tapestry that was revolting and shocking at the time. There are no icons or details to imagine, only plain human suffering front and center.
Klimt was a friend of Schiele, who also perished in the Spanish Flu epidemic, in 1918. According to Schiele, Klimt was obese and in poor health, thus was he predisposed and highly susceptible to the infection, just like our COVID.
We don’t yet know the final impact of COVID on humanity, but we’re beginning to see what could become its cultural legacy: a social-media relevancy endlessly re-examined, reinterpreted, and elusively deceptive. Modern man has neither the stomach nor the patience to create art that conveys the same existential awe and devastation of pre-modern plagues. These gestures instead are manifest in Facebook and Twitter post, bite-size micro-aspects of a thing so larger than the sum of us that it defies sufficient representation in or outside the mind.