There have been three big plague pandemics in history. The first one was a devastating epidemic in the Byzantine empire during the years 541-542, the plague of Justinian. The second pandemic started in 1348 during the Middle Ages, the famous Black Death. The last one started in 1894 and was primarily active in China and India. In between these pandemics, the illness slowed down but was never fully eradicated. From time to time local epidemics took casualties.
Jules Elie Delaunay was inspired by a fresco he saw in Rome, depicting a story from the medieval bestseller “The Golden Legend” about St Sebastian. He was one of the saints protecting against the plague. In the story, an angel is making his round in Rome, striking the house doors with a pike in which each blow means a certain death. In the foreground on the right people are praying to Aesclepius were in the left upper corner a catholic procession with a cross is visible. This painting became famous on the 1869 Paris Salon.
Plague In Rome, Jules-Élie Delaunay, 1869
Another depiction of the medieval plague was by the Flemish artist Ferdinand Pauwels. Specialised in history painting, he was asked to decorate the town hall in Ypres. Unfortunately this town hall was perished by fire, but this painting of the plague survived. A man is shown ringing a plague bell. Because of massive amounts of victims, churches could often not ring the church bells for each funeral. Instead this bell was used to remind the people of the constant threat of the disease.
The plague in Ypres (Ieper) in 1349, Ferdinand Pauwels
The theme of the plague ship was a popular story in marine folklore fitting in the romantic climate of the 19th century. Struck by an outbreak of the plague, all people on board died leaving a floating ghost ship with dead carcasses. Upon entering such a ship, people would be exposed to the contagious disease. Bernard Finnigan Gribble made a wonderful painting depicting this theme. And this was not fully fictional : the Black Death entered the northern countries of Europe due to a true plague ship, departing as a trade vessel from England in 1349 and entering the harbour of Bergen (Norway) as a ghost ship with dead and dying seamen. From this event, Norway and other Scandinavian countries were infected as far as Russia.
The plague ship, Bernard Finnigan Gribble, 1900
To prevent the plague from spreading and infecting other people, quarantine was instituted on harbours and borders. The classic definition of quarantine is 40 days of isolation in which ships and crew were forced to prove themselves healthy before disembarking. Horace Vernet chose the quarantine of the French war ship “Melpomene” (Greek muse of tragedy) as his theme for a painting that was commissioned by the city of Marseilles for the council chamber of the Intendance sanitaire. In 1833 the crew contracted cholera in Lissabon and made a stop in the harbour of Toulon. Although many of the crew died, the quarantine was effective and the city was not infected by cholera. In this study for the painting we see a young cabin boy presented to the ships surgeon, his eyes wide open in fear. In the foreground a dramatic foreshortened sick crew member. The painting was finished in 1835 and finished a series of paintings in the council chamber. Ironically, shortly after its arrival, a cholera epidemic broke out in the city.
Study for ‘Cholera aboard the Melpomène’, Emile Jean Horace Vernet, 1833–1834
Another painting that was commissioned and present in the Marseille Intendance Sanitaire, was a work of Jaques Louis David. In here St Roch was portrayed, another saint that was related to plague protection. Among dying and desperate plague victims, St Roche is pleading to Mary for help. In the foreground there is a victim with a serene pose, maybe accepting his fate and gesturing towards the viewer.
A third painting, also present in the same council hall, was a work of Auguste Vinchon. In this painting the story of the young doctor Mazet is told. The French government sent a team of physicians to Barcelona to investigate an epidemic of what turned out to be yellow fever. This tropical disease had travelled on a sugar cane transport from south america to Spain. Dr Mazet contracted the disease himself and died from it. On the painting a nurse is seen who is taking the vitals not of the dying patient, but of the sick docter. The yellow, unhealthy colour of the face of dr Mazet, contrasts with the healthy flesh of the nurse exactly as Mazet had described in a short book about the Barcelona epidemic about the successive stages of the disease, ending with the yellow colour. In addition to this painting, the French government named a Paris street after him : the rue Andre-Mazet.
Dedication of the young Mazet, Auguste Vinchon, 1822
Not only new arrivals were quarantined but also patients who were proven to have the disease were quarantined in special hospitals. This was done for every disease thought to be contagious among which leprosy and plague. Because there was no real cure for the disease, this meant that patients were more or less left there to die. Francisco Goya had a dark fascination for death, disease and madness. He made this painting of a plague hospital in which dead and dying patients are depicted in a desperate athmosphere.
Plague hospital, Francisco Goya, 1798-1800
Although plague hospitals or lazarettos tried to do their best, the situation worsened during a war. Theodore Gericault, also with a quite dark fascination for death and dying and famous for his painting of the Medusa raft, made this painting of dying plague victims during the Greek independance war. There is a mixture of praying people, an older man contemplating his fate and on the foreground an already deceased woman.
The most famous depiction of plague in art history must be the scene of Napoleon visiting the plague hospital in Jaffa by Antoine-Jean Gros. In here a messianic like Napoleon is portrayed visiting his troops during his Egyptian campaign. Despite the contagious nature of the disase, he touches an affected soldier in his axillary area where the bubonic plague resides. Unfortunately, the French troops had to retreat and the rumour is that Napoleon ordered his physicians to kill the remaining patients with an overdose of opium, instead of being delivered defenceless in the hands of the cruel enemy.
Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Pest House in Jaffa, Antoine-Jean Gros, 1804
We finish this series with a work of the Belgian Antoine Wiertz, again with a certain fascination for death and dying (see horror-tour). He touches the subject of a premature burial, something that was feared in the 19th century. Especially in the event of an epidemic with a lot of casualties, there was a chance that a dying patient was declared death while he was not death yet. Because in the 19th century the plague was not so active any more, cholera was a more realistic threat (as in the Melpomene story). In this painting a coffin is depicted in which an already buried victim, opens his own coffin in despair. On the coffin is an official stamp saying : Death from Cholera, certified by our docters.
The Premature Burial, Antoine Wiertz, 1854