Sydney Morning Herald Column

After the Black Death

Published May 7, 2020
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 'The Triumph of Death' (c.1562). A hard act to follow

It may be a symptom of morbid curiosity but the coronavirus lockdown has generated a new interest in novels such as Albert Camus’s The Plague, and movies such as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. Both are speculative fictions that draw on our knowledge of the causes and behaviour of an epidemic. It’s commonplace to talk about all the things we don’t know in this field, but we are vastly better informed than those Europeans who saw the Black Death of 1347-51 as God’s punishment for their sins.

When the illness finally subsided approximately a third of Europe’s population had perished. One might presume the survivors would have raced to Church in a suitably penitent mood. But instead of becoming more “humble, virtuous and Catholic,” in the words of eyewitness historian, Matteo Villani, “…they gave themselves up to a more shameful and disordered life than they had lived before.” The sins of gluttony, lechery and pride were on full display, as if daring God to do it all over again.

Flagellants in Tournai, c. 1349

What this suggests, apart from rueful reflections on human nature, is that the survivors’ belief in the Church and its doctrines had taken a beating during the plague years. Not only had the priests failed to warn of the coming catastrophe, they perished in proportionately greater numbers than laymen. Along with a minority who had behaved in a cowardly or avaricious fashion, this was enough to cast doubt on the authority of the Holy Fathers.

The response was a concerted effort on behalf of the wealthy to restore the power and glory of the Church, which they saw as the only safeguard against the violent impulses of the lower classes. Milan Cathedral was perhaps the most spectacular project of this kind. (It was started in 1386, although not completed until 1965!). All over Europe the Church’s ambitious building schemes had been thrown into disarray by the plague, which had thinned the ranks of the skilled masons who carved the decorations on the great Gothic cathedrals.

As for the shameful and disorderly mob, after the party came the hangover in the form of “a neurotic and all-pervading gloom”, as historian, Philip Ziegler puts it. Reflecting on their traumas and losses, people became more susceptible to the renewed efforts of the Church to focus their minds on sin and punishment. They were helped by new outbreaks of plague that would persist until 1405, and by a constant sense of apprehension that provoked rising tensions between nations, who snarled at each other because it was too risky to challenge God.

Andrea Orcagna’s ‘Strozzi Altarpiece’, 1354-57

It’s hardly surprising that few artworks may be dated from the actual time of the Black Death. When the streets are filled with dead bodies there is little incentive to pick up a paintbrush. Neither are there many literary accounts, the outstanding exception being The Decameron (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio – a series of tales told by a group of young people sheltering in a villa outside of Florence. The poet’s vivid descriptions of the plague, both its symptoms and its rapid progress, are found in the introduction.

Miniature paintings from the Belgian town of Tournai show citizens carrying coffins on their shoulders, and digging graves. Later the death tolls would be too large for conventional burials, with bodies heaped up in pits. Another Tournai miniature features a procession of flagellants wearing their distinctive black, pointed hats with a red crucifix. They are bare-chested and carry whips to flay their own backs and chests. Yet another depicts the persecution of the Jews, who were used as scapegoats and massacred in their thousands.

Looking at these pictures today one is struck by their inexpressiveness. Although the subject matter may be dramatic, the characters show no traces of grief or anxiety. This is typical of an era in which a saint might be portrayed standing placidly to attention with an axe buried in his head. The Gothic style dealt in symbols rather than flesh-and-blood. A more humanistic approach would arrive with the Renaissance, which we date from the beginning of the 15thcentury.

‘The Triumph of Death’ (c. 1446), (detail)

The art historian, Millard Meiss, argued that the first significant painting made in Florence in the wake of the Black Death was Andrea Orcagna’s Strozzi Altarpiece, in Santa Maria Novella, (1354-57). If the figures of Christ, Mary and the saints seem rather stiff, that’s entirely deliberate. Orcagna chose to ignore Giotto’s push towards realism, and place his figures in a shallow, flattened space that emphasised their status as supernatural beings. By portraying Christ as a king on his throne – a most unusual motif for a Florentine painter – Orcagna reaffirmed the hierarchies of organised religion. It was an act of humility on behalf of the artist and the bankers that commissioned the work.

The other major piece Meiss used to illustrate attitudes following the Black Death, was The Triumph of Death – a rip-roaring, grotesque horror-fantasy by Orcagna’s follower, Francesco Traini (although some attribute the work to Buonamico Buffalmacco). The only problem is that this fresco in Pisa is now believed to have been painted in the 1330s. This doesn’t make Traini’s vision of angels and demons flying through the sky clutching helpless figures any less frightening. It proves that artists were aiming to instill the fear of God even before the plague struck.

Another notable image of The Triumph of Death is an anonymous fresco found in Palermo. Death is portrayed as a skeleton He fires arrows at a crowd of elegant people on the right, trampling the bodies of those he has already dispatched, including a Pope and his bishops. The picture is dated c. 1446, almost a century after the Black Death, but the shadow of the epidemic still lingers.

‘The Dance of Death’ (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel

Move forward another hundred years and we have arguably the greatest rendition of this theme, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death (c. 1562) in the Prado draws on the dark inspiration of the Black Death, bolstered by the brutality of the Hundred Years War between England and France, which lasted from 1337 to 1453. The same period would witness the birth of the Reformation, laying down battle lines between Roman Catholics and Protestants.

The wasteland in which Bruegel shows people being mown down by relentless skeletal armies, prefigures the muddy fields of the Somme at the end of the First World War. There are hints of specific sins being punished, but the overall tone is apocalyptic. Death’s warriors are as indiscriminate and merciless as the Black Death.

During these centuries when sin and fear were the dominant subjects for art, three of the most common themes were The Last Judgement, the macabre Dance of Death, or the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. Of all the saints, Sebastian was chosen as protector against the plague because he recovered from his arrows wounds, presumably with scars that resembled the marks left by the buboes that swelled and burst on sufferers’ bodies.

The Dance of Death, depicted in a famous series of woodblock prints by Hans Holbein the Younger, in 1523-26, is a moral warning that life is but a brief, merry dance on the way to Heaven or Hell. Yet it also has echoes of the “shameful and disordered” celebrations that followed the lifting of the plague. There’s a grisly comedy in the sight of skeletons dancing with clergymen and noble dames, giving viewers the same vicarious thrills and shudders we might take from a horror movie.

Hieronymus Bosch, ‘The Last Judgement’ c. 1486, from Bruges. (He has another version in Vienna)

The most awe-inspiring of all themes is The Last Judgement. We think instantly of Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel, but Luca Signorelli’s version in Orvieto is scarcely less impressive in scale and execution. Perhaps most fantastic of all comes from an artist of the Northern Renaissance – Hieronymus Bosch, whose Last Judgement in Bruges makes Heaven seem no less bizarre than Hell. Bosch’s triptych is a catalogue of tiny atrocities in which everyday objects like a shoe, a jug or a bell became part of an infernal landscape.

No western artist has ever provided a more convincing vision of a world in which nothing makes sense any more. Two turbulent centuries had passed since the Black Death had plunged Europe into a crisis of faith, and the echoes persisted in works of art in which religion embraced the most grotesque, hallucinogenic forms. One wonders if our contemporary brush with mortality will provide any such long-lasting images, or whether we’ll be far too preoccupied with our smart phones, forgetting this crisis and hastening to the next.



Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 16 May, 2020