The Black Death in European Art

Posted on May 6, 2013

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When the Black Death came to Europe in 1348, it brought a plague Europeans had never seen before, slaughtering far and wide with unprecedented ferocity.  Before it left, after that first sweep through (it was to return again and again through the centuries) one third of Europe was dead.

It was a kind of collapse which Aboriginal people might understand.  They suffered many plagues after the Spaniards came, some as bad as the Black Death, some much worse.  We have some notion of how the Aboriginal people felt it while it was happening, not much.  The medieval European record of the Black Death is much better.

Death and plague became a subject of medieval art, of course.  How could it not?  In those years it became a part of medieval life.

black death in tourinai 1349

The plague was universally regarded as an act of God, and people reacted according to the medieval concept of God and religion.

black death and the cross

FlagellantsReligion was solace perhaps, but no cure.  Some tried to find a cure embedded in the notion that, if the plague was God’s punishment for impious times, then a regime of ultra-piety might be a solution.

Accepting suffering to achieve grace was a classic medieval notion of religion as you can see in their stories of saints which positively revel in masochistic religious ecstasy.  In response to the Black Death, groups of flagellants came together and wandered from town to town striking their bare backs with whips.

Another response (and, on occasion, involving the same actors) was to search for particular people to blame.  Supposed plague-spreaders were burned.  More sinister was the rising custom of blaming the Jews, attacking their communities, burning them in bunches, a nasty habit of persecution which began in those plague years.

Burning Jews at Cologne 1349

The psychology of Europe was inevitably affected as well.  A philosophy of fatalism set in.  The idea that death is a central fact of life.

So began the medieval artistic tradition of the Dance of Death, where people in the midst of life, whoever they are—young, old, powerful, holy, wise, foolish—all are haunted by death figures representing their own mortality.

dance of death 1

The idea of death triumphant became a recurring theme in European art.

triumph of death bruegel the elder