As their communities grappled with an invisible enemy, artists have often tried to make sense of the random destruction brought by plagues. Their interpretation of the horrors they witnessed has changed radically over time, but what has remained constant is the artists’ desire to capture the essence of an epidemic. Through these artworks, they have recast the plague as something not quite as amorphous, unknowable, or terrifying.
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Throughout most of history, artists have depicted epidemics from the profoundly religious framework within which they lived. In Europe, art depicting the Black Death was initially seen as a warning of punishment that the plague would bring to sinners and societies. The centuries that followed brought a new role for the artist. Their task was to encourage empathy with plague victims, who were later associated with Christ himself, in order to exalt and incentivise the courageous caregiver. Generating strong emotions, and showing superior strength overcoming the epidemic were ways to protect and bring solace to suffering societies. In modern times, artists have created self-portraits to show how they could endure and resist the epidemics unfolding around them, reclaiming a sense of agency.
Through their creativity, artists have wrestled with questions about the fragility of life, the relationship to the divine, as well as the role of caregivers. Today, at a time of Covid-19, these historical images offer us a chance to reflect on these questions, and to ask our own.
Plague as a warning
At a time when few people could read, dramatic images with a compelling storyline were created to captivate people, and impress them with the immensity of God’s power to punish disobedience. Dying of the plague was seen not only as God’s punishment for wickedness but as a sign that the victim would endure an eternity of suffering in the world to come.