More than ever before, we are aware of the recurring and persistent presence of pandemics in history. Witness the cottage industry of articles on pandemics and in particular on the plague. Just the other day, I got an email from Cambridge University Press with the subject line “Pandemic in the Ancient World,” which featured some of their books (at a 30% discount!) on topics such as the plague in Ancient Greece and the cult of Asclepius, plague and music in the Renaissance, or the plague during the rise of Christianity. And as if books from their list were not enough, the same publisher sent another email, introducing “Cambridge Reflections: COVID-19,” a blog project with posts, book chapters, and journal articles on the topic.
The plague was endemic for many centuries, but one outbreak in particular stands out, the famous “Black Death,” which, in just a few years in the 14th century, wiped out close to a third of Europe’s population (fig. 1). As the disease reached Florence in 1348, it was immortalized by Giovanni Boccaccio in his Decameron (fig. 2). Over the course of ten days—hence its title, deca meaning ten in Greek—ten Florentines, three men and seven women, who escaped the city to take refuge in a bucolic county retreat, just like affluent city dwellers during the COVID-19 pandemic, entertained themselves by telling stories, one each, each day. The stories are fun and supremely varied, drawn from all kind of sources, both learned and popular, and many of them are quite racy (this aspect might be particularly relevant in a time of social distancing: erotic story-telling replacing the actual thing?). What finds remarkable resonance with our times is what we read in the Introduction to the first day. Boccaccio sets the stage and explains the origin and progression of the “horrible plague” that “had originated in the Orient, where it destroyed countless lives, scarcely resting in one place before it moved to the next, and turning westward its strength grew monstrously.” We read about the disease’s symptoms and transmission and of the powerlessness of the medical profession. The timing is eerily similar to our current pandemic, as it spikes between the months of March and July. Most remarkable is Boccaccio’s description of the range of reactions to the “deadly pestilence.” There were Florentines who took it seriously and did whatever they could to avoid contagion, for instance, by practicing self-confinement or trying preventative measures. Some just ignored the danger, while others, convinced of the inevitability of a fatal outcome, decided to enjoy life and not care “about themselves nor their belongings.”
The medical profession was overwhelmed and the sick neglected. Many were left to die alone and the bodies that piled up in the streets were unceremoniously buried. Utterly chilling is Boccaccio’s incisive description of the effects of the plague on the social fabric:
all reverence for the laws, both of God and of man, fell apart and dissolved, because the ministers and executors of the laws were either dead or ill like everyone else, or were left with so few officials that they were unable to do their duties; as a result, everyone was free to do whatever they pleased…. One citizen avoided another, everybody neglected their neighbors and rarely or never visited their parents and relatives unless from a distance; the ordeal had so withered the hearts of men and women that brother abandoned brother, and the uncle abandoned his nephew and the sister her brother and many times, wives abandoned their husbands, and, what is even more incredible and cruel, mothers and fathers abandoned their children and would refuse to visit them.
Those living in the countryside were also hit by the pestilence and as they became convinced they were going to die soon, they stopped caring for their crops and animals. Although poor Florentines died in higher numbers than the affluent ones, death affected everyone. The Introduction concludes with this lament:
Oh, how many grand palaces, how many beautiful homes, how many noble dwellings, filled with families, with lords and ladies, became completely emptied even of children! Oh, how many famous families, how many vast estates, how many renowned fortunes remained without any rightful successors! How many noble men, how many beautiful ladies, how many light-hearted youth, who were such that Galen, Hippocrates, or Asclepius would declare them the healthiest of all humans, had breakfast in the morning with their relatives, companions, or friends, and had dinner that evening in another world with their ancestors!
The idea that nobody would be spared by death was a common theme in art even before the 14th century pandemic. In a poem that is documented as early as the late 13th century, we see three young men meet three dead figures who warn them of the fate that awaits them (fig. 3). The Dance of Death or Danse Macabre further elaborated upon the idea of death indiscriminately affecting all classes of society (fig. 4). Its earliest instance was the mural with explanatory verses that was painted in 1424–25 on the walls of a Parisian cemetery, and showed representatives of all walks of life dancing with a skeleton. Although the Parisian mural was destroyed in the 17th century, the theme became greatly popular and appeared in countless frescoes, manuscript illuminations, panel paintings, and prints.
Explaining and Coping with the Plague
One thing Boccaccio doesn’t mention but that presents another unsettling parallel with our present pandemic, is the wave of anti-Semitism this and other outbreaks provoked. Jews were accused of spreading the disease by poisoning wells, just like today we hear conspiracy theories about the disease having been engineered, while we witness the scapegoating of the Chinese.
Although Boccaccio mentions “the operations of the heavenly bodies” as a possible origin for the disease, it’s the other explanation he cites, that of “the just wrath of God mandating punishment for our iniquitous ways,” that was most commonly accepted. This is why in a late 15th-century fresco (fig. 5), we see an angel directing a devil to strike a group of people. That the couple and their children are already suffering from the disease is made clear by the swollen lymph nodes, or buboes, that we see on the man’s armpit and on the neck of the children and of the woman, which a physician is lancing. Like all of the other medical treatments that were practiced, lancing had very limited positive results (and carried great risks), but the threat of the ever-present deadly pestilence served as a convincing argument against sin, which preachers abundantly and successfully exploited. At the same time, religion also offered a resource to fight that fear. A few saints specialized in offering protection against the plague and Saint Sebastian was among the most popular ones. As a matter of fact, this fresco appears in a chapel dedicated to Sebastian and decorated with scenes of his life. A third-century Roman soldier, Sebastian had been condemned to death because of his Christian beliefs but survived the execution. The arrows that had transfixed him became a metaphor for the attacks of the plague, and the fact that they failed to kill him carried the same hope to his devotees. In the fresco (fig. 5), a devil wields a large arrow, while in an Italian panel painting (fig. 6) the Virgin uses her mantle to shield members of the different classes of society from the arrows that are sent by Christ himself. In a Provençal 15th-century painting (fig. 7), we see Sebastian, naked and transfixed by arrows, interceding with God while people die in the street. Notice that here too we find an angel and a devil but this time, the angel seems to be trying to prevent the devil from casting his weapon.
My own research deals with another chapel dedicated to Sebastian, located in the small northern Italian town of Arborio, in the rice fields between Turin and Milan. The first time I visited it, in 1992, I couldn’t avoid noticing that many of the frescoes that decorate the walls of the modest building had graffiti carved into them (fig. 8). One was particularly affecting (fig. 9): “1570 pestis maxima in partibus lombardie” (There was the greatest plague in Lombardy). The encounter with that inscription will remain one of the most extraordinary moments in my life as an art historian, as I felt the past was directly talking to me. Well after that visit, I kept thinking about it, so I finally made my way back to the village and started deciphering the graffiti, eventually gathering about 150 inscriptions. Because most of them bear dates, I could determine that they had been made over the course of a least four centuries and that the practice had to have held continued meaning for the community and must have been, at the very least, tolerated by the authorities. It also became clear that Arborio’s graffiti are a village chronicle of sorts, as they all record important events in the life of the rural community, most of which were catastrophic, such as the effects of the weather on crops, floods, wars, and several epidemics.
Although Saint Sebastian, to whom the chapel is dedicated, appears no less than three times in the frescoes, the graffito I saw on my first visit was carved on another saint, Anthony Abbot (figs. 8 and 9), who was also invoked against the plague and other diseases. Very cleverly, the same inscription was slightly altered, informing us that the so-called “Borromean plague” plague (named after the archbishop of Milan, Carlo Borromeo), that raged in Milan between 1575–78, had reached Arborio in 1577 (fig. 9). In another inscription, scratched into the lap of the enthroned Virgin (fig. 8), we learn that the plague had returned to Arborio in 1630.
We also find a depiction of another saint who was invoked against the plague: St. Roch (fig. 10), who bares his leg to display a plague bubo on his thigh.
In the many articles I have written, I attempt to understand this peculiar practice of writing graffiti on frescoes, showing that what might appear at first as a gratuitous act of vandalism was instead a coping mechanism in the face of traumatic events. The fact that this chronicle of sorts was housed in a place of worship and on depictions of saints indicates a desire to seek their protection. As was the tradition in the area for chapels dedicated to Saint Sebastian, Arborio’s is located in the town’s outskirts, on the main access road from the south. This suggests that beyond the support religion would bring in the face of life’s harsh realities, the building, the frescoes, and the graffiti, offered a specific protection against outside threats such as the plague. We are reminded of Boccaccio’s description of the westward travel of the pestilence and of today’s pandemic, of how we charted its progress through the globe.
Even when away from home, one hoped to secure the saints’ protection. The new medium of printmaking—first woodcuts and later copperplate engravings—allowed for the mass production of devotional images one could carry at all times, even pasted in traveling cases or sewn into clothing. Such images intended to protect against the plague, were known in German as Pestblätter, literally “plague sheets.” In a 15th-century woodcut (fig. 11), an angel kneels next to Saint Sebastian and lifts Saint Roch’s robe to reveal his bubo. The viewer cannot fail to notice a similar lesion on the thigh of one of the men who lie dead in the foreground. The image visually translates the principle of intercession as the two saints, to whom the print’s owner will direct her prayers, are shown praying to Christ in the sky above. Jesus is seen holding a sword, very likely symbolizing the pestilence, but it is unclear whether he is drawing it out or putting it back into its scabbard. One can hope that thanks to the saints’ intercession, the prayers of the print’s owner will successfully reach Christ and that he will sheath the mortal weapon.
The 14th-century Black Death had lasting effects on society. Historians have suggested that the cult of the Purgatory really took off as a result of the pandemic, as it offered a way to maintain family links despite death (remember that with about a third of the population dying, families were decimated). The dead needed the prayers of the living to attain heaven while the living could hope that once their dead relatives would reach heaven, they would, in turn, be of assistance. In this 15th-century fresco (fig. 12), we see on the right souls in Purgatory, most of them represented with their hands raised in prayer, while an angel helps one of them out. On the left, we see the seven works of mercy arranged as a frieze, making it clear that taking care of your fellow humans (for instance, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, or burying the dead) has a direct impact on the fate of souls in Purgatory.
And today? How do we seek comfort and reassurance in this time of pandemic? What are our own coping mechanisms in the face of this crisis? And how do we maintain solidarity in the face of fear and devastation? Writing last March, French economist Jacques Attali reflected on the impact of the past millennium’s epidemics, noting that each brought a “radical questioning” and fundamental changes in the political organization and in the culture. What this pandemic will bring to our 21st-century society remains to be seen.
Image at top: Piérart dou Tielt, The plague in Tournai in 1349, illumination for Gilles li Muisis, Antiquitates Flandriae, 1349–52, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, Brussels, ms. 13076–77, fol. 24v.