Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Death and Plague in Art

Sometime in the middle of the 14th century, Europeans became fascinated with the concept of death. Losing over a third of your population to the plague in just a few years will do that. And naturally, this fascination was mirrored in their art. Somtimes death was depicted beautifully, sometimes every gory, disgusting aspect was portrayed. I've gathered a few examples here.

Click on any of the images below for a larger view.

"Death as a Cutthroat", engraving by Alfred Rethel (1851). Rethel was inspired by an account that the celebrated poet Heinrich Heine had made of the sudden outbreak of cholera in the year 1832, at a masquerade during the carnival of Paris. Here, Death plays a kind of violin, while the musicians flee. Close to them stands an emaciated female silhouette, wrapped in a shroud: symbol of the disease. In the foreground, some people have already died of cholera.

Anonymous drawing, 16th century. Death stands with a bow and an arrow in his hands, his arms outstreched in a gesture of triumph over mankind. At his feet are scattered people from all walks of life - clerics, emperors, gentlemen, soldiers, peasants, scientists, etc. - symbolizing that death conquers all.

In this woodcut from 1512, a doctor and his assistants tend to a plague patient.

Lazarus, the sore-covered leper in Christ's parable, became the patron saint of leprosy, perhaps the first "quarantinable" disease. The term "lazaretto," which refers to a quarantine hospital or station, may be a combination of his name and Santa Maria di Nazareth, the church on the Venetian island where the first quarantine station was opened.

In this engraving from about 1660, a syphilis sufferer gets fumigated in a special oven. The caption on the oven translates as "For one pleasure a thousand pains."

The caption to this 1883 Puck drawing reads, "The kind of 'assisted emigrant' we can not afford to admit." The drawing depicts members of the New York Board of Health wielding a bottle of carbolic acid, a disinfectant, in their attempts to keep cholera at bay.

From the 14th to the 20th centuries, ports around the world carried out official quarantines of arriving travelers in hopes of staving off epidemics of plague, yellow fever, and other deadly scourges. The caption to this drawing from an 1858 issue of Harper's Weekly quotes a Dr. Anderson as saying: "While the Angel of Death rides on the fumes of the iron scow, and infected airs are wafted to our shores from the anchorage, we shall have no security against these annual visitations of pestilence."

This four panel engraving illustrates the horrors of the Black Plague in London. The captions read:
- "Multitudes flying from London by water in boats & barges."
- "Flying by Land"
- "Burying the dead with a bell before them. Searchers."
- "Carts full of dead to bury"

Copperplate engraving by Bernardino Genga (anatomist) and Charles Errard (artist) (1691). In the 17th century the line between medical text illustrations and fine art was so blurred as to be practically nonexistent, as in this engraving by the court painter to Louis XIV.

Painted by Marianne Stokes in 1900, this work brings a new twist the well-known story of Death and the maiden. Here, Death is neither a decaying corpse nor a skeleton, but a winged woman dressed in black. The young girl lies in bed in her nightgown. Suddenly awakened, she pulls up the sheets, out of fear or modesty. There is no physical contact between the two characters, but Death makes a soothing gesture with her left hand. Usually, the theme of Death and the maiden warns against vanity, but this isn't the case here. Instead, Marianne Stokes simply evokes, in this painting with a dreamlike quality, the sudden death of a girl during her sleep.

Engraving by Hans Sebald Beham (1548). A winged skeleton holding an hour-glass moves towards a young girl, who fell asleep in a suggestive position. 'Death and the Maiden' was a common theme during this period, both because of the aforementioned fascination with death, and as an excuse to paint nude women.

"The Kiss of Death" by Edvard Munch (1899). Death was often represented in a sexually aggressive way.

"Death and the Maiden" by Hans Baldung Grien (1517). painted this painting in which Death seizes a girl by the hair and forces her to go down in to the tomb dug to her feet. Death indicates the grave with his right hand. Grien painted many variations on this painting - see the note about naked women above.

The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel. La Danse Macabre, also called Dance of death, La Danza Macabra, or Totentanz, is a late-medieval allegory on the universality of death: no matter one's station in life, the dance of death united all. La Danse Macabre consists of the personified death leading a row of dancing figures from all walks of life to the grave—typically with an emperor, king, pope, monk, youngster, beautiful girl, all in skeleton-state. They were produced under the impact of the Black Death, reminding people of how fragile their lives were and how vain the glories of earthly life were. Its origins are postulated from illustrated sermon texts, the earliest artistic examples are in a cemetery in Paris from 1424. From 2004 - 2006, Houston's Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre and Two Star Symphony collaborated on the three part performance series Danse Macabre, a darkly comic puppet performance about death.

"The Best Doctor" by Alfred Kubin. Kubin, also known as the "priest of Hell", or the "Austrian Goya", had a tortured and conflictual soul. He suffered much while creating, and the theme of Death takes a significant place in his works. The feminine silhouette of Death, dressed in black with a medal around her neck, is frightful, just like the dying one's, a too long body clad in white.

"Death and the Miser" by Hieronymus Bosch (1490). This painting was inspired by a 15th century book of prayers entitled: Ars Moriendi (the art of dying): a handbook on the proper way of dying. It included eleven scenes: the first five were temptations of the devil, who was inviting the dying man to sin through impiety, despair, impatience, vanity and avarice. The five following ones described states of mind inspired by an angel: faith, hope, patience, humility, and generosity. In the last scene, the angel took the soul of the dead to Heaven, and the devilsin Hell let loose frustrated howls of rage. In Bosch's work, on the other hand, the outcome of the fight between devil and angel remains uncertain.

"The Triumph of Death" by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1562). Brueghel was strongly influenced by the style of Hieronymus Bosch. The painting is a panoramic landscape of death: the sky in the distance is blackened by smoke from burning cities and the sea is littered with shipwrecks. Armies of skeletons advance on the hapless living, who either flee in terror or try vainly to fight back. Skeletons kill people in a variety of ways - slitting throats, hanging, drowning, and even hunting with skeletal dogs. In the foreground, skeletons haul a wagon full of skulls, and ring the bell that signifies the death knell of the world. A fool plays the lute while a skeleton behind him plays along; a starving dog nibbles at the face of a child; a cross sits lonely and impotent in the center of the painting. People flee into a tunnel decorated with crosses whilst a skeleton on horseback slaughters people with a scythe. The painting clearly depicts people of different social backgrounds - from peasants and soldiers to nobles and even a king - being taken by death indiscriminately. Pieter Brueghel also painted Mad Meg, a portrait of Dulle Griet, one of the main characters in Full Circle.

This fantastical depiction of the plague was painted by Arnold Bocklin in 1898. Guillermo Del Toro is a big fan of his work.

Anonymous illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411). The buboes characteristic of the bubonic plague are quite evident.

Sources: NOVA's History of Quarantine, Death in Art, Wikipedia, Dream Anatomy Gallery, Plagues in Art

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