More Than a Pretty Picture: The Function of Art in the Plague Years

Shellie Marie Clark


The main purpose of this paper is to determine the multiple functions of works of art created during outbreaks of plague in Europe, and to determine whether those functions were intended by artists during creation, or if the people adapted the pieces to their own uses. Far more than decorative pieces for the homes of the rich or houses of worship, plague-era art was comprised of layers of rich symbolism that held messages for the people, urging them to repent for their sins, to keep their souls in a state of readiness, to pray for intercession, and to have hope. While it is impossible to determine the specific intent of most works at the time they were created, primary documents offer evidence of the reasoning behind their creation, and examination of their use by the public supports those reasons. Cultural analysis shows how, in their frame of reference, medieval and renaissance people could believe in the power of driving out negative thoughts which could lead to plague, and in the benefits of sponsoring art in exchange for divine intercession. As a method of describing plague and its treatments, art offered the both the illiterate and the educated an understandable guide for locating, identifying, and lancing buboes, and for dispelling miasma. Warning of methods of transmission, some plague-era art was woefully destructive in its scapegoating of the Jews, while some examples were eerily accurate in their depictions of rats and human contact as sources of contagion. As a religious tool, plague-era art offered divine explanation, hope, and comfort to a population which often questioned God, the church, and their own faith in the face of mass devastation. As a form of expression, plague-era art helped give a voice to the unspeakable fear, grief, and loss, along with a sense of chaos, experienced by plague sufferers and survivors. As historical records themselves, pieces created during plague years have left a chronicle for modern audiences of how a devastated Europe processed such a monumental human tragedy. In conclusion, this research has shown that works of art served multiple purposes for societies that experienced plague, and primary documents support the thesis that many of those functions were intended by artists creating the pieces.


Plague; Art; Black Death

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